There is a particular sub-genre of books which are witty and erudite, comic and serious and often of a bibliophilic nature: such novels as Elaine di Rollo’s The Peachgrower’s Almanac, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literary Society or Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. The problem with this form is that it can go badly wrong and teeter into pretentious whimsy. But when it goes right, as with Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary, it is sheer joy. Although I cantered through the book and welcomed its distraction during lockdown, there are enough hidden jokes and cunningly disguised rabbit holes to make one want to return to it.
The split timeframe narrative moves between Mallory, a 21st-century intern at the ailing and incomplete Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, and Winceworth, a 19th-century lexicographer working on it. Mallory is tasked with rootling out mountweazels — fake words usually inserted as a means to prove plagiarism. Winceworth, of course, is the author of such joys as ‘cassiculation (n), sensation of walking into spider silk, diaphanous unseen webs, etc.’ and ‘agrupt (adj.), irritation caused by having a denouement ruined’.
Mallory’s investigations sort of piece together the story of Winceworth, an endearing character resembling Mr Polly or Mr Pooter, while she is dealing with a threatening anonymous phonecaller. But their narratives are braided in more interesting ways. Images, themes and even obscure words (such as the collective noun for cats, a ‘clowder’), echo between the plotlines.
It is a novel of lists, alliterations, allusions, swirling meditations on language, dictionaries, gender, puns, linguistic jokes (‘Why did you ever care about pronouncing pronunciation correctly?’), text-emojis, grawlixs, tildes and even the author’s own neologisms — I shall use ‘splayground’ henceforth. As such it will endear itself to cruciverbalists and lingueccentrics, pedants and those who hate pedantry.
But — and it judiciously uses Dr Johnson’s definition of the novel, ‘a small tale, generally of love’ — it has heart as well as hijinks and hi-hats. It deals with love as something which cannot be put into words, and dare not speak its name (done neither stridently nor sentimentally). It is, in short, a delight.