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'The Liar's Dictionary' Is A Clever Delight For Language Lovers


This is FRESH AIR. "The Liar's Dictionary" is the first novel by the Prize-Winning British writer Eley Williams. It tells the story of two lexicographers who are obsessed with words and love. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it's a book bursting with cleverness yet also filled with heart.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I recently learned a great word - Mountweazel. You may already know it, but if you don't, a Mountweazel is a made-up word or name that publishers deliberately put in a reference book to catch those who steal their work without attribution. If they find this fake word or name in another dictionary or encyclopedia, they can prove they've been ripped off. You'll meet a frolicking heard of Mountweazels in "The Liar's Dictionary," the wonderful first novel by British writer Eley Williams. This book takes the most unpromising of heroes - two lexicographers - and then sets them loose in an effervescent romp about language, love and life. If you like puns, crosswords, Scrabble, the Urban Dictionary or simply enjoy witty writing, this sweet, slyly structured, unexpectedly touching book will go down like a hot fudge sundae.

"The Liar's Dictionary" interweaves the tales of two word-man characters who work for the same dictionary publisher, Swansby's, 120 years apart. In 1899, we meet Peter Winceworth, a poor, nervous, sensitive loner who dreams of moving to a seaside cottage. It's typical of his life that - having faked a lisp to win sympathy - Winceworth gets assigned to work on the letter S - or F, he must call it. Meanwhile, in present day London, Mallory is a chipperly, angsty 20-something intern who spends her days answering the same threatening phone caller. Her official task is to find all the fake entries that some disaffected lexicographer secretly put in Swansby's dictionary without telling the editors.

Both have romantic troubles. Mallory adores her action-oriented girlfriend, Pip, and feels cowardly because she can't muster the courage to be out. To her shame, she calls Pip her flatmate. For his part, Winceworth becomes smitten with a smart, beautiful Russian named Sophia Slivkovna. Trouble is, she's the fiancee of his most hated co-worker, a man who is everything Winceworth is not - rich, handsome, thoughtless and cruel.

You'll find yourself rooting for both Winceworth and Mallory. But their stories aren't the most immediately enjoyable feature of "The Liar's Dictionary." We first noticed the novel's exuberant love of language. Structured like a dictionary, as the title suggests, the book unfolds in 26 chapters - from A is for artful to Z is for zugzwang.

Every page is intoxicated with words. Williams laces her book with so many enjoyable ones that I kept my own dictionary at the ready. Many of the words she spotlights are real, like glabella, which I learned is the bit of skin between the eyebrows and above the nose. Others are cooked up by Mallory or Winceworth, who keep dreaming up words that should exist to identify a familiar feeling of reality. My favorite is cassiculation, which is defined is the sensation of walking into a spiderweb.

Even as Williams revels in the power of words to help us capture experience, she makes clear the many ways they also deceive and imprison us. Words make us believe we can pin down meanings just so in a world too fluid ever to be pinned down. That's the case with the threatening caller, who's furious that Swansby's dictionary has changed the definition of marriage so it no longer refers exclusively to a union between a man and a woman. For her part, Mallory riffs on the word queer rather than tell the world of her queerness.

Both she and Winceworth need a jolt to start fully living. And they get them - Mallory from a life-threatening crisis at the office, Winceworth from his encounters with Sophia, which offers dialogue more sparkling than any romantic comedy I've seen in ages. There's a scene with them and a pelican in St. James Park that had me laughing out loud.

Now, "The Liar's Dictionary" isn't perfect. Like so many clever novels, it occasionally tries a bit too hard to dazzle. Nabokov had the same problem. And some may find its ending more satisfying conceptually than emotionally. It is never less than a delight and a wise one at that. Rudyard Kipling once said that words are the most powerful drug. And by the end of the novel, Mallory and Winceworth come to see this. They learn to start seeking the future, not inside the dictionary, but outward in the big, wide world.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "The Liar's Dictionary" by Eley Williams.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the Senate filibuster became a tool of obstruction. It dates back to the Jim Crow era, when Southern senators wanted to preserve white supremacy. That's according to Adam Jentleson, who will be my guest. He's the author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." He knows the Senate rules. He used to be Harry Reid's deputy chief of staff. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF KITTEL & CO.'S "ALPENA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.