The Dictionary of Lost Words – Pip Williams

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Chosen by Jodie

❝ Esme Nicholl is the daughter of a lexiographer, raised in the Scriptorium where the first dictionary is collated. She hides beneath the table and collects slips of paper containing words that are lost or deemed unsuitable. As she matures she realises, from these abandoned words, that a woman’s point of view is missing from the dictionary. She goes on a journey to catalogue words commonly used by women.

This is a work of historical fiction which is partly based on fact (the creation of the dictionary, the Suffragette movement, WWI). However Pip Williams has chosen, via the fictional content and the lost words, to honour those who have been under-appreciated or excluded by society over the years.

The novel’s premise is that word matter, and it questions whose words are more important than others and who gets to decide which words we are exposed to. Words have the power to control, but also to provide freedom and both are indicated in this novel.

You are not the arbiter of knowledge, sir. It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply allow others to do so.

❝ I found it fascinating how laboursome and time consuming the process of constructing the dictionary was. The realisation that a lot of words and their meanings primarily came from a male perspective was something I hadn’t considered before. The author did a great job at highlighting the lack of women’s contribution without undermining the male role.

In addition to themes of loss, feminism and friendship, I enjoyed the influences of the women’s suffrage movement and WWI on the storyline. The novel was based in part on real events and for me this made it all the more compelling. It’s an easy to read book, not full of excitement but once I got into the flow I enjoyed being educated on a topic I knew nothing about. – Jodie

❝ I’d never thought about how the dictionary was made or read a lot about suffragettes in the UK so this was an educational book for me which enriched my historical knowledge. The story was slow in places but not boring and I liked how the main character was somewhat realistic in her acceptance of her life and her reluctance to join in enthusiastically with the suffragettes fight. It seemed authentic. I would recommend this book which is surprisingly rare for our books.– Jo

❝ I really enjoyed reading about the creation of the Oxford Dictionary from a female perspective. Everything the main character, Esme, was striving to achieve was so valid and her pushback against both class and gender norms was so satisfying I could’ve cheered for her at times. 

I would love to see a wave of fiction told from a non-male perspective to round out and give depth to historical events that have previously only been written with a pale, stale & male lens. – Suzy

❝ I have read Surgeon of Crowthorne so already had an understanding of how the Oxford English Dictionary was put together. However that book was very factual and this version was much more approachable and full of personality. Its focus on the dictionary from a woman’s point of view and inclusion of the suffragette movement really bound the fictional and the true fact.

Esme was a quiet hero who doesn’t have every win afforded her by the author, therefore making the storyline more realistic. The book isn’t full of twists and turns and actually starts of quite slowly, but I persevered and came to enjoy the slow burn. By the end I was fully invested in Esme’s life and outcomes. – Rachel

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Published 2020
Affirm Press
384 pages

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