The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams 

A very good story, if not quite what I was expecting. Had I paid more attention to the title I'd have realized it wasn't just about the writing of the dictionary - that it would be about those other words, the ones excluded from the dictionary, the lost words. That I should have anticipated, but the emphasis on the women's rights movement came as a complete surprise as it wasn't mentioned in any of the reviews I read.

It begins with Esme, the main character, as a little girl sitting beneath the table where her father and other men sorted through slips of paper containing words and quotes using them. When one of the paper slips falls, Esme catches it and puts it in her pocket, eventually hiding it in a trunk under her friend's bed. She continues to add words to the trunk as she grows up and eventually takes her own place at the sorting table. When she began collecting 'women's' words, I wasn't sure what her purpose was, but in the end I think I understood what she was doing and why. 

With historical fiction it's never clear enough to me where the line is drawn between history and the author's imagination, but here Pip Williams has blended the two into a thought-provoking story. The parts dealing with the Oxford English Dictionary held my interest more than those about Esme's supplemental dictionary - maybe she'd say that makes me part of the problem - but I was taken up by her personal story. I found her father to be a more compelling character than Esme herself though, and for me it unfortunately fell a little flat after he was written out. 

Some interesting history, an imaginative plot, and an eclectic cast of characters make this one a satisfying read.


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