Book Review: The Liar’s Dictionary

“To name a thing is to know a thing. There’s power there.”

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams, is framed around two timelines. It is a love story of sorts alongside a modern day mystery, set in the headquarters of a London based publishing company. The writing is razor sharp and flashing with humour. The plays on words and their ever changing meanings add zest to the wry depiction of characters’ foibles and failings.

The contemporary timeline focuses on a young intern named Mallory. She is the only employee at what remains of Swansby’s Publishing – besides the owner and editor, David Swansby. Mallory’s job includes answering the telephone – fielding daily calls from a person threatening to blow up the building, a person who claims to want her dead.

After a few weeks at Swansby’s, Mallory is given a task in addition to her work looking over David’s efforts at digitising the contents of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. She is to seek out mountweasels – fake entries sometimes inserted in text to protect copyright. David has come to fear that, for unknown reasons, his dictionary may contain an unusually large number of these inventions. He wishes Mallory to delve into the archives in hope of discovering a link between them, or even a list, that the made-up words may be removed from the online edition.

The earlier timeline is set in Swansby’s Publishing’s heyday, at the end of the nineteenth century. It opens with Peter Winceworth – a lexicographer currently working on words beginning with the letter S – attending his company mandated elocution lesson. Peter has a lisp – except he doesn’t really. For no good reason that he can explain, he manufactured this fake speech impediment in childhood. His penultimate elocution lesson is taking place in the shadow of a raging hangover. Peter will go on to have a particularly strange day.

Mallory lives with Pip – a lover she describes as her flatmate when Pip meets David during a bomb scare. Peter is also in the throes of a romantic entanglement. He met Sophia at the previous night’s party and, unusually, found he could talk and she would listen. These two couples and their relationships weave through the story of Swansby’s dictionary. The absurdities of working life, and limitations people accept, are excavated to fine effect.

Scattered throughout the text are passing references to animal cruelty that I found disturbing. Mostly though this is an erudite and humorous tale that both mocks and celebrates language. Usage may be deemed correct (or not) but all words are invented and, over time, meanings change. The way words are used can define how a person is perceived and treated.

I found the contemporary tale more engaging but recognise how deft the narrative is across both timelines. There were many words being checked by staff for Swansby’s dictionary that were new to me. I hope that at least some of these turn out to be mountweasels.

A cleverly constructed and amusing read. Recommended in particular to those who enjoy wordplay.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, William Heinemann.