The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams [8/10]

The tone of “The Dictionary of Lost Words,” an ode to words and dictionaries and the impact of both on our inner and outer lives, is earnest, sweet, and surprisingly unadorned. In short, this debut novel by Australian Pip Williams should have set my teeth grinding. Indeed it took a third of the book for the underlying intelligence and subtlety of the unfolding yarn to grip me in its maw. The story of Esme, daughter of one of the lexicographers assembling and adjudicating the first Oxford English Dictionary at the turn of the Twentieth Century, amasses gravity as she grows from childhood into marriage, amidst World War I and, crucially, the suffragette movement. At a young age, she begins to collect unwanted words, which so often arose from women’s language and experiences, and eventually she moves to collect women’s word herself. Thus the closing half of The Dictionary of Lost Words escalates into an absorbing, affecting morality tale that resonates in our current times. Plus, of course, any book that celebrates words and their subtleties should be celebrated. Gentle and deep.

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