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Words and lies.

A Fortnightly Review

The Liar’s Dictionary
by Eley Williams

Doubleday US | Heinemann UK | 288 pp | £11.55 $19.53

By PAUL COHEN.

ELEY WILLIAMS’ The Liar’s Dictionary manages to do new things with some of the preoccupations of recent innovative novelists. For example, her book joins a surprising number of recent alphabetically arranged novels, such as — to name just examples available in English — Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, and the encyclopædic final section of David Grossman’s See Under: Love.

Williams’ plot hinges, in a satisfyingly complex way, upon deliberate false entries in the dictionary, reminiscent of the false passages in the books at the centers of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and José Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon. One of her protagonists is tasked with eliminating these entries from a dictionary, much as the character Cinoc, in Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, works as a dictionary’s “word-killer,” though Cinoc targets obsolete rather than fake words. Since Williams’ novel, more than these others, is all about, and frequently composed of, rare and unusual words, her employment of these themes is particularly appropriate, and she is able to apply them in distinctive ways.

Though Williams’ chapter headings, starting with “A is for artful (adj.),” stress the alphabetical structure, the novel’s binary structure—alternating chapters set in the present and 1899—is more crucial and highly effective. The counterpointed relationships between the two stories—present/past, female/male, gay/straight, upstairs/downstairs and so on—which take place in the same institution and building, make for an absorbing and moving dual narrative.

Without resorting to supernatural connections, Williams sets up subtle links between her present and past characters. In an old photograph taken outside the building, Mallory, the modern protagonist, notes that her predecessor “must have been looking directly up at my window just as the picture was taken.” Although she is sitting with her romantic partner at the time, Mallory “propped the photograph in the centre of [her] desk, where usually an employee might have a photograph of their partner.” Similarly, her 1899 counterpart presciently imagines that “some poor clerk or printer’s devil” might in “five years? Ten years? A hundred?” be “tasked with winnowing out these entries,” just as Mallory has been.

In addition to the unusual words which appear in the fictional dictionary, the novel itself makes abundant use of a delightfully florid vocabulary. Language lovers will want to keep the OED handy as they learn to use such terms as “zarf,” “vulning,” and “apricide.” As you might expect from her linguistic enthusiasm, Williams has a knack for devising charmingly unexpected turns of phrase, such as “If ever a songbird was designed to glare, Dr. Rochfort-Smith’s specimen was that bird” or “It tasted of soap used by a despot with a secret.”

Nevertheless, The Liar’s Dictionary is not just a showcase for its author’s linguistic ingenuity. Its affecting characterizations, its absorbing plot, and even its vivid evocation of the largely forgotten but deadly 1899 explosion at Barking have much to offer the reader.


Paul Cohen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Texas State University, has written on literature, art, music, film, computing, pedagogy, and, for The Fortnightly Review, on ‘PataphysicsRemy de Gourmont, portraiture in fiction and Tom McCarthy.

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