The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams

Word nerds might already be familiar with the term mountweazel. A mountweazel is a fake entry put into dictionaries to stop people from copying and profiting off of someone else’s hard work. Mountweazels play a lot of different roles in Eley William’s clever novel, The Liar’s Dictionary. They act as metaphor as often as they appear as literal plot points. For me, the real fun in reading this novel was trying to work out which words were made up and which ones were real (if obscure) English words.

There are two plots in The Liar’s Dictionary. In the present, Mallory has an internship that managed to be simultaneously the world’s most boring job and the most alarming. She works at the remnants of Swansby’s publishing house. Swansby’s was once a rival to the great Oxford English Dictionary. They raced Oxford’s lexicographers for decades until World War I killed off their employees and took the metal from their presses. Swansby’s encyclopedic dictionary was sadly never finished. Decades later, the last member of the family ekes out a living renting out the more presentable parts of the building for events. Mallory is just there to answer the phone…and receive the daily bomb threat. Mallory is told that the calls come from someone upset about recent efforts to update Swansby’s definition of marriage, but she is strangely blasé about the calls—much to the alarm of her girlfriend. The other plot is set more than 100 years earlier, centered on lexicographer Peter Winceworth. Peter is an odd duck. He affects a lisp to annoy people (his boss sent him to an elocutionist) and he secretly makes up words for emotions and events that, ordinarily, can only be described in long phrases.

The mountweazels connect Peter and Mallory, although they don’t know who the other is. In the present, Mallory’s boss discovers the fake words in his efforts to digitize the dictionary. He puts her to work to try and find all of them. Peter never intended for anyone to find them. They’re just something he does while people talk over and around him. That faint connection offers a path to compare Peter and Mallory in their dead end jobs and their inability to move forward with their lives—as well as to meditate on the fact that all words are made up when you really think about it.

The Liar’s Dictionary felt undeveloped for me. This may be because the two protagonists have failed to launch, which definitely flavors the book. It might also have been because the mountweazels were little more than McGuffins. Perhaps it was also that the plots just ended (one in a twist I saw coming and the other with bizarre revelation) and we never got to see Mallory and Peter grow up. I wish I had had more time with this book’s words.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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