The success of Attrib. had readers keenly awaiting this first novel, and it doesn’t disappoint. A virtuoso performance full of charm, it follows two lexicographers 100 years apart – Mallory, who narrates in the present, and Winceworth, shown in 1899. Both work for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a lesser-known rival to more illustrious reference works, and an eccentric labour of love maintained by generations of the Swansby family... Throughout, you feel in the safe hands of a storyteller dedicating their talent to our pleasure. The Liar’s Dictionary is a glorious novel – a perfectly crafted investigation of our ability to define words and their power to define us.
Williams may have moved on to a bigger publisher, but only she and Heinemann can tell us whether a larger editorial budget has led to a more interventionist approach. Reading The Liar’s Dictionary, I spotted just one thing that initially looked like a “bleurgh of vocabulary”: “I is for inventiveness (adj.)”. I felt like the proverbial cleaner in an art gallery, unsure whether a strange object is a piece of rubbish or part of the exhibition. And then I realized, to my joy, that this so-called “adjective” must be a fictitious entry: not a copyright trap but a hoax played by the author on the reader (with or without the editor’s blessing). We might call it an experimental mountweazel.
In 1899 Peter Winceworth, a harmless drudge working on Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, feels his life spiralling out of control. Attempting to assert his own personality in some small way, he begins to seed the as-yet-unpublished reference work with words of his own invention. In the present day, Mallory, employed to create a digitised version of the dictionary, has to track down Winceworth’s false entries, with unpredictable consequences. Original and often very funny, The Liar’s Dictionary is an offbeat exploration of both the delights of language and its limitations.
It seems likely that the sheer self-consciousness of Williams’s style will repel fully as many readers as it lures. As Mallory sardonically says: “Simply put is impossible, and not the way for me.” What is not open to doubt is that the intensity of Eley Williams’s imaginative vision — her capacity to tease the extraordinary from the ordinary — and her characteristically playful, occasionally preening but always warm prose single her out as one of the most promising young British writers to emerge in the past few years.
Though she’s interested in light touches and flickers, Williams has a taste for the joke squeezed until it yields its most absurdist juices. She rejoices in whole clowders of cats called Titivillus (“Tits?” “Tits!”), a mock battle with a choking pelican, much spilt Pelikan ink, a femme fatale behind a pot plant and an almost-orgy. Hers is a warm, intricate novel shaped by a powerfully humane and uncoercive intelligence. It’s a book of big ideas in a minor key. Sceptical about grand visions, it is also resistant to conclusion, so that perhaps the best kind of readerly tribute is to say: “Of this novel I know not the meaning.”
The result is a certain sluggishness in some parts of the novel and a feeling that – disappointingly, in a work so concerned with vocabulary – not enough use is being made of the infinite possibilities offered by words, especially invented words. Only in a passage in which Winceworth is fading into woozy half-sleep on a park bench are we allowed to escape the humdrum details of a life constrained by language:
But the emotional weft is exquisite. Echoes in language, both verbal and body, pass between eras with subtlety. The Liar’s Dictionary is a dexterous handling of two mysteries at once: a malfeasance, which ends up solved, and the problem of love, which does not.
It is a novel of lists, alliterations, allusions, swirling meditations on language, dictionaries, gender, puns, linguistic jokes (‘Why did you ever care about pronouncing pronunciation correctly?’), text-emojis, grawlixs, tildes and even the author’s own neologisms — I shall use ‘splayground’ henceforth. As such it will endear itself to cruciverbalists and lingueccentrics, pedants and those who hate pedantry.
But — and it judiciously uses Dr Johnson’s definition of the novel, ‘a small tale, generally of love’ — it has heart as well as hijinks and hi-hats. It deals with love as something which cannot be put into words, and dare not speak its name (done neither stridently nor sentimentally). It is, in short, a delight.
Williams is an assured and satisfying writer, her language rich and intricate and her characters rounded enough to be sympathetic and lampoonish enough to be terribly funny. Her writing owes something to Wodehouse but more to Waugh in his most amusing of disgruntled humours. In both storylines, there is a mystery to be uncovered and a dramatic – and violent – event to be endured. In neither are these the focus. Rather, it is the connection between Mallory and Winceworth, as we watch each struggle with love, life and speaking their mind, that makes the book so delightful.