The Liar's Dictionary: A Novel
By Eley Williams
An award-winning novel that chronicles the charming misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and the young woman put on his trail a century later to root out his misdeeds while confronting questions of her own sexuality and place in the world.
Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.
In the final year of the nineteenth century, Peter Winceworth is toiling away at the letter S for Swansby’s multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary. But his disaffection with his colleagues compels him to assert some individual purpose and artistic freedom, and he begins inserting unauthorized, fictitious entries. In the present day, Mallory, the publisher’s young intern, starts to uncover these mountweazels in the process of digitization and through them senses their creator’s motivations, hopes, and desires. More pressingly, she’s also been contending with a threatening, anonymous caller who wants Swansby’s staff to “burn in hell.” As these two narratives coalesce, Winceworth and Mallory, separated by one hundred years, must discover how to negotiate the complexities of life’s often untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, and undefinable path. An exhilarating, laugh-out-loud debut, The Liar’s Dictionary celebrates the rigidity, fragility, absurdity, and joy of language while peering into questions of identity and finding one’s place in the world.
This discussion guide and recommended reading was shared and sponsored in partnership with Penguin Random House.
Use these discussion questions to guide your next book club meeting.
Have you ever browsed through a dictionary the way that’s described in the preface? If so, what unique words did you find?
At the beginning of the novel, Winceworth muses that “there should really be a specific word associated with the side effects of drinking an excess of alcohol.” Is there a feeling or sensation you feel there should be a specific word for?
When David tells her about mountweazels, or made up words, Mallory points out that “all words are made up.” How do you think made up words become “real words”? Can you think of any recent examples?
“You wouldn’t expect a comic novel about a dictionary to be a thriller too, but this one is. In fact, [it] is also a mystery, love story (two of them) and cliffhanging melodrama.” —The New York Times Book Review
“An audacious, idiosyncratic dual love story about how language and people intersect and connect, and about how far we’ll go to save what we’re passionate about…Showcases a delight in language that evokes both Nabokov and—more on point with its mix of playfulness, profundity, warmth, and heart—Ali Smith.” —NPR