This debut novel imagines the development of the Oxford English Dictionary from the perspective of one of the lexicographers' daughters. Young Esme collects words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men, realizing that words relating to the lives of women and the working class often go unrecorded—a wrong Esme attempts to right as an adult with her own dictionary.
... inventive, absorbing ... Esme is a literary heroine with an idiosyncratic appeal that rivals Jo March ... her role model and constant companion is her lexicographer father, now amiably wedded to the dictionary. Their companionable relationship of equals is one of this novel's great pleasures: in a wonderful observed detail, he is that rare kind of man who rinses his own cup at the sink ... [an] absorbing, quietly revolutionary novel ... Pip Williams combines the storytelling scale and intimate detail of a 19th-century novel with the sensibility of now—and a cast of richly realised characters and relationships that are a pleasure to spend time with. And it has a rare quality that is, perhaps, especially valuable in this historical moment: it is deeply, intrinsically kind, without dipping into sentimentality. (There is conflict, but no villains. Even Esme's most infuriating antagonist is nuanced enough to glimpse another perspective at work.)
... the emotional story of Esme’s coming of age and eventual employment as part of the research team, against a backdrop of male-dominated employment and the emerging women’s suffrage movement ... The Dictionary of Lost Words concerns itself with the gaps between the lines of the dominant male narrative, choosing instead the usually overlooked, everyday language of ordinary women. It’s a masterfully written, beautiful first novel that tells a fascinating story of language, love and loss.
Don’t gobble it, as I did the first time round—savour its heart-wrenching detail. Unfortunately, a close read does reveal the need for a tighter copy edit. It will certainly be a popular book-club choice. Time will tell whether it takes its place beside literary classics.