Review by Jade Craddock, Managing Editor
Fiction is endlessly fascinating; you can read a book centred on outer space, another about gangs, and yet another about witchcraft, but Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words is the first book I’ve read about dictionaries (that’s not to say there are other great dictionary-based books out there – apologies to any others) and it is utterly fascinating and enchanting.
Williams’ novel is based on the creation and development of the first Oxford English Dictionary and the generally little-known history of it. She introduces readers to the scriptorium – little more than a garden shed – where Dr Murray – the dictionary’s editor – worked alongside various assistants compiling what would become one of the most definitive texts in history. The novel is peopled with real-life figures and places, giving it a sense of authenticity, and then at the heart of the story, Williams inserts her heroine, Esme.
Just a girl when her father begins work with Dr Murray, Esme essentially grows up in the scriptorium, with words and language as her playthings. But she soon comes to learn that some words – women’s words – aren’t always as valued as other words and that the dictionary isn’t quite the definitive, inclusive record she had imagined it to be. Esme’s coming of age is set against the backdrop of the dictionary’s evolution, as well as the huge social and political forces of the day, as Williams’ novel takes readers on a thoroughly comprehensive journey both for Esme, the OED and the world as women’s suffrage, gender politics and the Second World War all shape a changing era.
What I loved so much about this book was that it introduced me to a history I wasn’t even aware of and caused me to stop and think about the dictionary – something that I use every day – in a way I had never considered before, but it did so through the means of an utterly compelling and beautiful story that effortlessly merges history, gender politics, love and loss. To say this book is ambitious is an understatement, but Williams delivers brilliantly, and whilst I enjoyed the story in itself, the book has prompted me to want to discover more about this history and context of the OED.
Given the timeline’s span, it did feel as if the book squeezes a lot in and, consequently, some aspects of the story and wider history are rather abbreviated. In fact, to me, I thought the story could easily warrant a trilogy, given the historical and personal scope, but I appreciate that a standalone novel is much more viable. But readers may find themselves wishing the book had covered particular elements in more detail. However, Esme’s story is what holds it all together and maintains the novel’s focus and I adored the early chapters which introduce young Esme, as well as following this one young woman’s path through an incredibly fascinating historical and social context. Indeed, for me, it is the whole milieu of the scriptorium, Oxford and the OED that, excuse the pun, defines this novel and sets it apart. It also serves as a crucible for all of the wider issues at play, so that education, class, gender, war, and everything else, is captured in a wholly original way.
Without doubt, this is my favourite book of the year so far and, I suspect, it will be in the running come the end of the year too.