Sunday, April 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is a beautiful, gentle historical novel that tells the parallel stories of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the life of the daughter of one of the lexicographers, Esme.

Esme’s mother died when she was very young. She grows up at her father’s feet, literally, in the Scriptorium, a garden shed where a small group works to compile words and definitions for the dictionary. It is a decades-long project, involving hundreds of workers and volunteers, and consuming the lives of the most devoted. Esme is one of these, following in her father’s footsteps as closely as she is allowed, but she’ll never be an equal. As a female, she is a second class citizen, even though she is respected and encouraged by the men leading the project.

As she grows up, Esme learns that the rules of life differ for women. Even the rules of language differ. The dictionary is meant to include only important, significant words. The judges of significance are privileged, educated men. Many words are excluded. Esme collects them. Her obsession with these lost words gets her into trouble, but also defines her.

In some ways, this is a coming-of-age story. Esme experiences the joys and sorrows of growing up under the care of an indulgent, loving father, a devoted maid, and a caring godmother, but she never really gets over the loss of her mother. She is given a great deal of freedom to explore and learn. And while she does branch out beyond the confines of the Scriptorium, she keeps coming back to it as a home and haven. But it is more than just a coming-of-age story, because it stays with her through her maturity to the end of her life.

Esme lives through tumultuous times: the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. She is caught up in the women’s suffrage movement and has to decide how she can best contribute to women’s progress. Her world is jarred and shattered by World War I. As she grows up, the people she loves grow old—all marked by the slow progression of the work of the dictionary, marching through the alphabet, trying to pin down words, to make them static, permanent. But nothing is permanent. The author does such a wonderful job of showing the beauty in the inhabitants of Esme’s world and her attachment to them, that each loss is painful.

This is one of those lovely books that you’ll want to linger over, enjoying the characters, rejoicing and suffering with them. The lives are realistic and fairly narrowly focused, but the story is transcendent. The author packs a lot into the pages. It’s a book I’m going to want to read again.

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