The Liar’s Dictionary

Doubleday. Jan. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9780385546775. $26.95. F
Williams’s (Attrib. and Other Stories) first novel offers up a delicious love letter to language that readers of a sympathetic palate will devour. Following a Dorian Gray–like prolog of insights about dictionaries and the people who love them, the novel alternates between two London-based lexicographers a century apart. Back in 1899, the hapless Peter Winceworth toils away at Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary in bored anonymity, speaking with an affected lisp and infatuated with the fiancée of his coworker and archnemesis. He finds his pleasures by inserting scores of mountweazels—fake words—into the dictionary-in-progress, assuming nobody will ever see them yet reveling in the possibility that somebody might. That person is Mallory, now an intern at the same dictionary looking to digitize its long-delayed second edition when she isn’t fielding phone calls by somebody threatening to blow up the building. Her partner in rooting out the mountweazels is her “flatmate” Pip, whom Mallory adores but is incapable of introducing publicly as her girlfriend, and together they try to uncover the identity of this lexical vandal. Buried beneath the torrents of puns and linguistic riffing is a story about two people from different eras connected by the thread of language, free to invent and repurpose words as they please, but who are less adept at navigating that far more indefinable terrain: the human heart.
VERDICT Expect sharply divided opinions here, but devoted fans of Ali Smith will gleefully succumb to Williams’s tale of acrobatic wordplay.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing