Book Review | The Liar’s Dictionary (ARC)

I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.

This book was so odd, a word which here means (yes, I’m borrowing Lemony Snicket’s turn of phrase) unusual but undeniably fun.

Mallory has been an intern at Swansby’s for three years now, helping her boss and the only other employee David work on the famously incomplete Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary. One day, she is tasked with seeking out every single mountweazel—false entry—that she can before the book is digitized. Meanwhile, one hundred years previous, Peter Winceworth works on the words beginning with S for the encyclopaedia but begins to invent his own words, even as his day progresses into one of the strangest he has experienced.

I really liked the two different timelines, and how they intertwined. Seeing each step of Mallory’s and Peter’s day, and the ways they affect each other, was fascinating. And the two leads were great, at turns witty, kind, and so very nerdy. The character development just over the course of the single day this plot focuses on was great; it’s subtle but perceptible change, handled so well. And the side characters, especially Pip and Sophia, but also David and Frasham, are well written.

The writing style reminds me a bit of how Lemony Snicket uses wordplay and vocabulary in humorous ways—but on steroids here. Williams applies elevated language while simultaneously mocking the sanctity of formal speech, and it’s really clever. I didn’t have the easiest time getting through some parts of it, but I still got a lot of enjoyment out of this.

A major part of that enjoyment was definitely that I couldn’t possibly predict what was going to happen next—an explosion? A raucous party? An encounter with oxygen-deprived waterfowl? Who knows? Not me, and that kept me turning the pages.

The best part though, for me, was the examination of what language is, how it shapes us, and how we shape it. Through the mountweazel discoveries, Mallory glimpses Peter’s state of mind, and Winceworth’s act of writing them serves as a kind of rebellion. I’ve never thought so much, or so deeply, about dictionaries, and this is certainly the first time I thought about what goes into writing them. Also I’m going to use the term “procrastinattering” any time I can now; Williams is so clever!

In the end, The Liar’s Dictionary is a quirky, complex, entertaining little novel. The protagonists are lovely, the plot is unpredictable, and the writing pretty good overall. I feel like I need to improve my vocabulary now, though… Or invent some new words of my own.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

The Liar’s Dictionary will be published in January 2021!

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