Books

Eley Williams
The Liar’s Dictionary

“Mountweazels” – the fictitious entries in dictionaries set as traps to catch bootleggers – were the subject of English writer Eley Williams’ PhD, and they form the narrative backbone of her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary. It follows the parallel stories of two lexicographers working on the fictional and eternally unfinished Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary. In the Victorian era, the teasingly named Winceworth is in love with his boss’s unattainable fiancée and ignored by his co-workers. Embarrassingly, his employer has also enrolled him in elocution lessons to cure his (fake) lisp. As a middle finger to the establishment, Winceworth secretly plants fabricated words and their extravagant definitions in the embryonic Swansby’s, a subversive act he relishes as “his only chance of leaving a trace on the world”.

About 120 years later, in contemporary London, third-year intern Mallory is scraping together a living as a university graduate. Her office is a stationery cupboard in the once grand but now decrepit Swansby House, where she has been tasked to help with the “Digitalisation. Digitisation. Whichever” of the dictionary, but instead finds herself chicaned into the needle-in-a-haystack task of extracting Winceworth’s “cuckoos in the nest”.

This novel comes after Williams’ award-winning 2017 collection, Attrib. and Other Stories. While her trademark use of wordplay and humour shine in both books, The Liar’s Dictionary is less experimental and will be accessible to more readers; it has enough of a plot to stitch together the novel’s journeys into etymological quirks and obscurities. Williams’ joyful stunts with neologisms and her unveiling of the grammatical ghosts lurking in the English language will appeal to word enthusiasts, while the scene of Winceworth performing an emergency pelican tracheotomy in St James’s Park – notorious as a setting for crimes against the apostrophe – is singular in its flagrant absurdity.

Running alongside the levity is a more serious exploration of same-sex relationships. Frequent threatening phone calls are made to Swansby’s offices by someone offended by the dictionary’s new definition of “marriage”, and it is Mallory’s job to answer these calls while also coming to terms with her own queerness.

Williams’ writing is unique and inventive, but also follows in a literary lineage of queer writers such as Ali Smith and Jeanette Winterson. Saddled with Zoom in lieu of a book tour – the fate of many authors whose work was published mid-pandemic – she performed a 12-hour dictionary reading to launch this novel, and she is bound to have more tricks up her sleeve.

Justine Hyde

William Heinemann, 288pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2020 as "Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary".

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Reviewer: Justine Hyde