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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

The Liar's Dictionary

Do you have room for some thoughtful whimsy in your to-read pile? Eley Williams' new novel The Liar's Dictionary joins a growing list of exciting debut novels that have been pouring out of the publishing gates in recent (and upcoming) months. Providing clever humor and playing smartly with language, Williams' story jumps back and forth between two employees working on Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary: intern Mallory in the present-day and staffer Peter Winceworth in the late nineteenth century. Mallory thinks she's taking a desk job at a dictionary but soon finds that her primary task is answering the daily calls of anonymous death threats made to the office. Mallory's workload increases in yet another unique way when her boss, David Swansby, tasks her with searching out all the mountweazels in the dictionary prior to digitisation. These are the made-up words that were snuck into the publication, leaving the questions: How many are there? Why and by whom?

The answer lies in Winceworth's story, as the somewhat bumbling, often inebriated man makes his mark by sliding words into the dictionary that give voice to that which he experiences but feels the English language does not yet have the vocabulary to express. Winceworth frequently seems more like a laughingstock than a well-rounded character, yet his rarely expressed hopes to move to a cottage by the sea in Cornwall and to create the words that will communicate all that he cannot now say reveal an inner world to which many of us may deeply relate. The created words are often as simple and appropriate as "skipsty (v.), the act of taking two steps at a time" but also frequently more poetic and seemingly random, like "cassiculation (n.), sensation of walking into spider silk, diaphanous unseen webs, etc." The premise of mountweazels ties in cleverly with both Winceworth and Mallory's fascination with words and their feeling that there is so much about their emotions and experiences that is elusive and difficult to convey. Throughout the novel, there is the underlying question: Haven't you ever wished for a word to say just what you're thinking, but it simply does not yet exist? To which I found myself repeatedly and emphatically saying, "Yes, yes, yes!"

Mixed in with the embedded reflections on language is something else that Mallory is struggling to say. She is madly in love with her girlfriend Pip, but while Pip is glad to sing it from the mountaintops, Mallory is not comfortable coming out at work, to her parents, or anywhere else. In fact, she suspects it is the dictionary's updated definition of marriage to include unions between all persons to be the cause of the ongoing telephone threats. As Pip assists Mallory with her mountweazel investigation and they both end up at risk, Mallory contemplates the resonance of Winceworth's efforts: "What things in the world do I want to define for other people that might otherwise be overlooked?" Maybe language can't cover and express everything. Maybe there are things that run deeper. But if we can find words for what we experiencefor sounds, sensations, and emotions, can we better understand each other? Mallory goes on... "A word for how I always mistype warm as walm. Silly things. A word for knowing when the pasta is perfectly cooked just by looking at it. Crucial-silly things. A word for when you're head-over-heels in love with someone and you're both just burbling nonsense at each other, forgivably. A word for mispronouncing words that you had only ever seen written down...."

It's clear that Williams is a supreme lover of language, so for the bookish among us, we may find we've met our literary match. The Liar's Dictionary has a quite distinct premise, and it will be interesting to see how Williams tackles different characters, plots, and concepts in what will hopefully be many novels to come. Click here to request the Liar's Dictionary now.

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