The liar’s dictionary | Eley Williams

Eley Williams has become a bit of a crush; she’s a regular on booky podcasts and is wise, witty, insightful and all-round charming. She also has a gorgeous voice so I’d listen to her reading anything, even a dictionary. Especially a dictionary…

So, two alternating narratives, one set in 1899, the other contemporary, both in the offices of Swansby House, the HQ of the Swansby Modern Encyclopaedic Dictionary. A disaffected Swansby lexicographer in 1899 starts sneaking invented / inventive words (‘mountweazles’) into its text; a bewildered 21st century intern is tasked with rooting them out. But her work is interrupted by frequent menacing phone calls and bomb threats. What can it all mean?

The short alternating male/female, historical/modern chapters give the book a nice rhythmic beat. The gleeful word play and joie de mot are a delight (don’t know if that’s a thing, but this book is all about words that don’t officially exist but should, so there we are). There’s a happy lesbian relationship and coming-out subtext, which gladdened this bitter old dyke’s withered heart. There are curious fin-de-ciecle after-hours goings-on in the British Museum, a curiously violent encounter with a pelican in St James’ Park, conflagrations in both centuries, and a wealth of detail and references which were probably terribly symbolic and meaningful but passed me by. That would be my only criticism of an otherwise hugely enjoyable book, that there’s a lot of ‘Um, what’s that about?’ but that’s more a reflection on my ignorance. Otherwise, lots of emotional pull and cerebral pleasure in equal measure, which is what I like.

Those who enjoy this kind of sapphist sophistry / sophist sapphistry should try and get hold of ‘Miss X, or The Wolf Woman’ by Christine Crow (The Women’s Press, 1990, now out of print alas). ‘The liar’s dictionary’ has a distinct kinship with this forgotten masterpiece. If cunning linguistics (sorry), or witty wordy lesbionage gets your juices flowing (not sorry) you will absolutely love Miss X.