The Liar’s Dictionary capitalizes on two trends — books about books and dual timeline stories, where one plot occurs in the past, one in the present, with key events or people connecting them. Author Eley Williams makes something entirely fresh from those familiar elements, creating a story that is clever and heartfelt, playful and challenging, and the most actively engaging book I have read in a long time. It also benefits hugely from reading in ebook format, for reasons that will become clear.
In 1899 London, Peter Winceworth is a lexicographer, compiling entries for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. More than a hundred years later, Mallory is an intern at the present-day Swansby’s, helping to get a long-delayed new edition out. Both Winceworth and Mallory are intelligent, perceptive, awkward people — Winceworth fakes a lisp, has no real friends, and is secretly in love with Sophia, the fiancée of his least-favorite coworker. Mallory endures daily phone harassment from an anonymous caller, and while she loves her girlfriend, Pip, she can’t bring herself to come out publicly.
Both of them are stuck — ironically, because neither of them can find the right words.
And then the mountweazels appear.
Mountweazels sound like some sort of medieval rodent, but are actually fake words, invented and inserted into reference books as a deterrent to copyright thieves and plagiarists. There is no place for such nonsense in Swansby’s Dictionary, though, so Mallory’s boss tasks her with rooting them out. Her search for the Swansby mountweazels intensifies as Winceworth’s connection to them is gradually revealed, with unexpected results in both timelines.
The thing about mountweazels is that they SOUND like real words. Agrupt, for example, is the irritation caused by having a denouement ruined…or is it? The more time that Mallory and Winceworth spend with these not-real-but-could-be words, the more they’re able to find words of their own. They incorporate mountweazels into their vocabularies and their way of looking at the world, and their not-great-but-could-be lives finally begin to come unstuck.
The joy of The Liar’s Dictionary is rooted, unsurprisingly, in its language. Eley Williams plays with words throughout, peppering the text with obscurities and mountweazels and sly turns of phrase. It requires close attention, but the rewards are tremendous, adding another layer a story already laser-focused on the importance of words.
Normally I tell people to read in whatever format they prefer, be it print, ebook, or audiobook. But in this case, the ebook makes for a better, more immersive experience. The built-in dictionary allows you to easily look up the definitions of unfamiliar words, to decide which ones are mountweazels and which ones are real — or to decide that they’re ALL real, whether they have a definition or not.
Perfect for fans of Ali Smith or Jenny Offill, or anyone looking for a rewarding story that will shift the way you look at language, The Liar’s Dictionary is well worth checking out.