I’ve been making some good progress with my TBR Challenge 2021-22 this month, and at the time of writing this review, I’ve finished this and another one from the layout here. Maybe I will do it after all! I’m into the books that Bookish Beck kindly sent me in December 2020 now, and what a lovely variety of review copies of novels and non-fiction they are. Here’s a really quirky and fun novel that I feel had something of the tone and setting of “The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line” (and as such, I’ll be sending it to Emma, who also enjoyed that one).

Eley Williams – “The Liar’s Dictionary”

(24 December 2020, from Bookish Beck)

Mallory is a paid intern at an obscure dictionary, helping with a project to digitalise it in the hope that something can be made of it. Her boss, David Swansby, is the last heir to the unfinished dictionary project that bears his name and the huge crumbling building in central London that used to house a whole hive of busy lexicographers but is now home to Mallory, David and a cat called Tits, with the lower floors hired out for events. Mallory sits out her days, underemployed but enjoying the wordplay, but also every day taking calls from a person threatening to destroy their world. Meanwhile, her more practical girlfriend, Pip, who is more about action, enjoys the coffee shop job where they met but is becoming more and more frustrated by Mallory’s refusal to be her authentic self, including admitting their relationship to others.

In 1899, Peter Winceworth is one of that hive of lexicographers, researching words and writing out slips to go into the great work. He’s constantly looking for words for things that don’t yet exist, one of the delights of the book. Rivalrous with his colleagues in an office teeming with cheeky cats (although the cats have diminished to one by the modern-day sections, we assume this has happened naturally and even though the book has some shocking episodes, no harm comes to any cats; hold calm with the pelican bit and it will come good). At a horrible party, he meets an irresistible woman … but of course she’s connected to his bitterest rival. After a terrible day involving rushing around on trains to nowhere, explosions, discoveries and fright, he takes his hobby of making up slips with invented words and their spurious definitions and combines it with his work, inserting mountweazels into the august dictionary.

Back in the modern world in alternating chapters, Mallory is tasked with finding these invented words. But will she find them all, why are they there in the first place, and can she cope with the hoax and threatening phone calls? Both plots work their way gradually through, with lovely wordplay and fun all the way through both texts. We know it will be playful after the preface, which purports to be a serious piece about dictionaries but of course isn’t. I did think one part of the 1899 plot was a bit weak, but it involves a strong and independent woman so we’re good there, and all ends satisfactorily and with an air of positivity that’s common to both protagonists after you’ve raced through all the short chapters to get there.

You can read Rebecca’s review here.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 4/41 – 37 to go.