Poetry Shelf summer reading: Pip William’s The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words Pip Williams, Affirm Press, 2020

Carole Beu recommended Pip William’s The Dictionary of Lost Words. I hardly ever go into the city so I tend to order from various bookshops and get the bookseller to add a few extra books to my list. I started doing this when we were going into lockdown and have a few favourite shops around the country I continue to visit online or by phone.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a little beauty (well 400 pages or so) and I read it in a day. It is set in the time of the suffragette momentum with WWI looming. I loved the premise: when the team of lexicographers were gathering words that would make it into the first Oxford Dictionary, motherless Esme spends most of her childhood beneath the sorting table. One day a slip of paper flutters to the floor beside her, she claims it (with the word bondmaid) and hides it in Lizzie’s (her friend and servant) old wooden trunk. Esme develops a hunger for words – those misplaced, overlooked or abandoned – by the men in the Scriptorium. Over time, as she becomes a young woman hungry for knowledge and important things to do, she understands that some words are valued more than others. Women’s words and words of lower classes were highly unlikely to make the dictionary cut. She begins to assemble her own version: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

The curiosity of Esme is infectious.

The novel is based on intensive research and includes the men who were involved in compiling the dictionary; the whole process and setting is fascinating in itself if you love words, language, linguistics. But what strikes me deeply about this novel are the layers upon layers of missing things. Women’s words are missing from the dictionary which means women’s experience and opinions are devalued and missing. I am reminded of the multiple ways women have been missing, invisible, muted across past centuries and I am wondering whether we still endure such travesties. Have we got it right yet?

The curiosity of the author is infectious.

The novel navigates the power of words to shape us, manipulate us, exclude us, embolden and liberate us. So many overlocking threads: the suffragette movements, a cruel school, an unconventional father, a covered market where Esme never covers her ears, class differences, a theatre troupe and a fleeting love affair, an unplanned pregnancy, an aversion to violent protest but commitment to necessary change. Friendship, love, reconciliation, loss.

The book hit several unexpected personal cords – maybe that is why I have loved it so much. Curiosity as reader bumped into pain which provoked little epiphanies. I loved that. But I also loved the lyricism, the complexity of ideas and characters, the empathy that infuses every inch of the narrative. As much as this is a novel of missing things, this is a novel of extraordinary presence. It was the perfect addition to my book-retreat holiday. So thank you Carole and the Women’s Bookshop. Yes – it has earned the word GLORIOUS!

Affirm Press author page

Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney and now calls the Adelaide Hills home. She is co-author of the book Time Bomb: Work Rest and Play in Australia Today (New South Press, 2012) and in 2017 she wrote One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life, which was published with Affirm Press to wide acclaim. Pip has also published travel articles, book reviews, flash fiction and poetry.

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