Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.
Peter Winceworth, a disaffected Victorian lexicographer, inserts false entries into a dictionary – violating and subverting the dictionary’s authority – in an attempt to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom. In the present day, Mallory, a young overworked and underpaid intern employed by the dictionary’s publishing house, is tasked with uncovering these entries before the work is digitised. As the novel progresses and their narratives combine, as Winceworth imagines who will find his fictional words in an unknown future and Mallory discovers more about the anonymous lexicographer’s life through the clues left in his fictitious entries, both discover how they might negotiate the complexities of an absurd, relentless, untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, undefinable life.
Braiding together contemporary and historical narratives, the novel explores themes of trust, agency and creativity, celebrating the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language.
The Liar’s Dictionary is an enjoyable debut novel which presents to the reader two narratives, one set a hundred years ago featuring Peter Winceworth, a lexicographer who is working on the ‘S’ section of Swanby’s new dictionary, and the present day narrative which features Mallory, who works at modern-day Swanby’s. She has been tasked with finding Mountweazels – false words which have been added to dictionaries to protect against copyright infringements. There follows a playful, charming journey into Winceworth’s life and why he decided to place these ‘mountweazels’ into the text, and Mallory’s discoveries as she finds more and more among the pages of the Swanby dictionary, and tries to work out why he felt so inclined as to place them there in the first place!
It’s interesting seeing both Mallory and Peter’s side to the story. I loved the little references to words not yet invented in the past timeframe – the idea of needing a word to describe that feeling when you’ve drunk too much alcohol and feel wretched the next day made me smile.
Each (alphabetical) chapter sits under a different word, and I loved learning about these and other strange and fascinating words which are included throughout. This was definitely my favourite part, and reminded me why I enjoy learning more about etymology.
There are also some strange parts to this story, and I’m not sure I completely ‘got’ the ending (I don’t know if I missed some significance there), but I really liked the way Eley Williams crafted this book. There’s a real love on English and all its quirks from the author peppered throughout its pages, which made for an interesting and entertaining read.
Many thanks to the publisher, Cornerstone, for providing a copy of this book on which I chose to write an honest and unbiased review.