Friday, January 27, 2023

Pip Williams - The Dictionary of Lost Words

In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it.

Comment: This book has a very good average rating in most sites where people can leave reviews. I was aware of it but to be fair, even though I had it in the pile for months, only with the motivation of a buddy read did I feel like starting it. I'm glad I did because it turned out to be a bit different from what I thought.

Esme is a little girl who follows her father to work and she doesn't mind spending hours under his work table checking slips of paper with words, for her father is one part of the vast team working to compile the first dictionary. However, for several reasons, many words won't be in it and as Esme grows up, she learns of many of them and why they aren't considered. However, the task is very slow, with every word having to be validated and confirmed and then so many suggestions coming in... Esme decides to save keep many words that have a special meaning to her, for she learns that they can have their own power, especially in regards to those situations most people don't think about. But with learning also comes the realization that unfairness and injustice don't disappear... will Esme be able to use what she learns to become, herself, a better person?

My simple description above cannot encompass all the provoking content the novel has but I think that a better summary would hint at certain things and might ruin the experience of reading. The official blurb isn't bad, for it gives us the premise but not the paths the plot follows and, consequentially, what Esme decides to do with the things she learns and the way words affect her vision of the world. I think I can understand why this book appealed to so many readers, don't we all love words?

The story is divided into six parts If I recall correctly, all somehow related to a big or central moment in Esme's life. She is the protagonist and narrator and many of the life lessons she goes through are related to the dictionary work and why some words, namely the ones less common among certain groups or those that aren't deemed "worthy" will not be part of the final version. I liked the fact she felt curious over words and their meanings and that as she came to realize the unfairness of the process, she took it into her own project to keep words and to have, one day, her own dictionary.

The setting is England in the beginning of the 20th century and the story is quite heavy on the making of the first dictionary yes, but also on all the historical and social aspects of what was happening at the time. The author created a novel where Esme grows up so that what she learned as a little kid under her father's table could be used to let her be aware of the changes in the world about her. I found this to be quite organic and special and Esme is a very likable character, not perfect but still considerate and I was interested in seeing her reaction to all the new things happening around her.

Many readers, however, claim the story to develop too slowly... it's true, there's quite a repetition in the beginning and it feels as if Esme might be watching too much and not participating, but I think the author sort of fixed that as the plot went on, because as Esme grows up, so does her need to have more knowledge and to see things for herself, and from the part three on, in my opinion, the plot does seem to advance quicker. It also helps that more things around the characters are happening too, such as the suffragette movement and then the inkling about war.

The final parts were much more emotional than what I imagined. The slow pace and mostly telling style of narration was switched into something in constant motion or, at least, feeling as if a lot was ongoing. Certain situations weren't that surprising but I was still caught by how heartfelt some things were and how much of an impact they had on me. It's not the saddest story ever but it was poignant and sort of reinforced all the wisdom and maturity Esme got on with her life.

I ended up liking the story more than what I thought when I was still in the beginning. I do think the story improved and now I'm curious to read the author's new novel, to be published very soon, focusing on different characters but in the same "universe" let's say so. Not a sequel, but a companion more like.
Grade: 8/10 

No comments:

Post a Comment