Tuesday 22 December 2020

The Dictionary of Lost Words - Pip Williams (2020)


Rating: Admirable

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a charming and engaging novel which covers a fascinating period of history that includes the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary (1879 to 1928). For bibliophiles and logophiles such a novel cannot help but be enticing, however it took me around eighty pages before my interest was piqued; it might be because I'm usually not that interested in novels' that begin with the main protagonists' childhood, but it wasn't just me, as quite a few people in my library book clubs also found the novel very slow at the beginning. The main protagonist in question, Esme Nicoll, enjoys a childhood that revolves around the 'Scriptorium', a glorified shed where her father, Harry Nicoll, toils at putting together the dictionary (the novel goes into quite a bit of detail about the process, which is fascinating) along with historical figures such as Sir James Murray, C.T. Onions and Rosfrith Murray. As Esme gets older she is invited to work within the Scriptorium and this is where the novel becomes much more interesting, as the reader becomes immersed in the amazing task of putting together the dictionary.

As the novel progresses Esme grows older and is confronted with adult life within Edwardian society, which includes dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, patriarchal attitudes and the kind of real life tragedies that make narratives compelling. There's the suffragettes, one of which becomes a close friend, and one of the best portrayals of the civilian impact of WWI I have ever read. During all of this Esme sets about gathering words that are not part of the OED, many of which she hears from women of all classes, such as her bondmaid (famously this word was accidentally left out of the OED), Lizzie, and a colourful former prostitute Esme meets down at the markets. These are the words that become part of her dictionary of lost words, including the C - word, which was definitely not part of the first OED! Esme is quite a character and I've always thought that if you start having emotional reactions about what is happening to characters then the author has written quite a fine novel; not only that but Williams has also produced a clever denouement that manages to tie up all of the narrative strands, of which there were many, and makes you think at the same time. If I rated books using a numerical system then The Dictionary of Lost Words would be given three and a half, however using my system I'm rounding down to admirable (rather than excellent) due to the very slow beginning, but if you can get through that then it is a quality debut novel.

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