The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

‘I need to talk to you about mountweazels.’

Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.

Yes, my attention was caught by the title and held by the word mountweazel. And so I ventured into a world of lies, a world with two timelines, where the present is concerned (more or less) with uncovering mountweazels before the dictionary is digitised.  What makes a word real? What is truth? What is the truth behind lives lived in lies?

 In the past, the disaffected lexicographer Peter Winceworth inserted false entries into a dictionary. Why? He may have been in pursuit of artistic freedom, intent on making his own mark on the language. The dictionary has never been updated since its publication but now it needs to be prepared for the digital age. Enter Mallory, a young intern working for the publishing house. The head of the publishing house, David Swansby, wants Mallory to identify the mountweazels.  Mallory sets about her work, in between ‘phone calls threatening to blow the building up and trying to deal with some secrets of her own.

The story progresses: Winceworth wonders about the impact of his work on the future (and deals with some issues of his own) while Mallory wonders about Winceworth as she uncovers his entries. And David Swansby sits in the background. Until he does not.

The story progresses: the absurdity of language becomes more apparent, as do the lies which are part of the lives of each character. I discovered grawlix (a string of typographical symbols (such as %@$&*!) used in place of an obscenity, especially in comic strips). Both words and lives evolve, and both can be fragile.

If you enjoy words and slightly offbeat stories, then you may enjoy this. I did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith