The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams Published 2020, 384 pages
What an extraordinary book this is, one to enjoy and one to remember. The heroine and narrator is Esme; the main plot takes her from childhood to death, through ups and downs, and in particular through a lifetime of work on the Oxford English Dictionary. Just to learn about how that tedious and complicated set of books was assembled is in itself fascinating; this is the best kind of historical novel. The characters, many of whom were based on real people, are well portrayed and entirely believable.
There is also a strong subplot having to do with the early years of the Suffragist movement; the violence described in the book is gritty and true to the actual facts recorded at the time. The discrepancy between the haves and have-nots that runs throughout the book, in both plots, is skillfully depicted. The issues of women’s rights, of class distinctions, of the turmoil and bitter devastation of war and what it does to the human spirit–all are deftly explored. Yet the human story is the one that wins out in the end.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is no beach read, but it is a page turner in its own way. There is a bit of romance woven in, much local color, lots of detail about the way a dictionary is compiled (or used to be compiled before more sophisticated technology took over), and a sympathetic but realistic rendering of the Suffragette movement and of World War I. The author has an unusual and effective way of leaving much to the reader’s imagination, since the chapters often skip several years. The finale wraps up the various story lines, but not in a fairy-tale kind of way; the characters don’t all live happily ever after. Nevertheless, the reader comes out of the experience feeling optimistic, and greatly rewarded for having read such a remarkable book.
The author, Pip Williams, will be interviewed on Zoom by Kent Memorial Library; see the library’s website for details.