‘The perfect book’, Eley Williams writes in the preface to The Liar’s Dictionary, ‘should grab the reader and the perfect dictionary should be easily grasped.’ Eight pages into a self-confessedly ‘garbled’ preface filled with meandering metaphors and imagery worthy of Anne Carson, these words struck a slightly hopeless note in my head: could Williams, to date acclaimed for her finely crafted short stories, successfully make the transition into novel-writing? I was not yet grabbed. The preface didn’t seem to ‘know when to shut –’.
Two paragraphs into the first chapter, ‘A is for artful (adj.)’, I knew I needn’t have worried. The Liar’s Dictionary is deft and clever, refreshing and rewarding, and, as Williams asks with tongue firmly in cheek, ‘who reads the prefaces to dictionaries anyway?’
In terms of genre, the book is difficult to pin down. It’s a two-hander, a sort of tennis game between individuals separated by a century and united by their complex feelings about their mutual employer, the publisher of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Mallory, our modern-day protagonist, is the dictionary intern