The Dictionary of Lost Words is the latest novel by Pip Williams, released in April 2021. As a lover of words, I was instantly intrigued by the premise, especially the emphasis on women and their stories.
As a child, without a mother to guide and care for her, Esme spends most of her time at her father’s feet in the Scriptorium. It’s here the great lexicographer James Murray and his team gather words for the first ever Oxford English Dictionary.
Sitting under the table listening to her father and his colleagues do their work, Esme becomes increasingly fascinated by words. When, one day, she sees a slip of paper containing a forgotten word flutter to the floor, she decides to collect words for her very own dictionary – The Dictionary of Lost Words.
During her time hidden under the table in the Scriptorium, Esme knows she needs to be silent and invisible to allow the men to concentrate on their task. What she doesn’t realise, yet, is how women throughout the world are silenced and their words discarded. As she begins to collect these rejected words, Esme becomes fascinated by their meaning and the stories of the people who use them.
She soon realises that a lot of the words relating to women’s experiences are often the ones that go unrecorded and discarded. She wonders how these words, which are used so frequently by some, can be deemed unimportant and of no significant consequence.
We follow Esme as she grows up in a tumultuous time, with war looming and women fighting for votes, as she tries to understand the significance of the language we use.
I really enjoyed this book. I love books with strong female characters and this story was full of them.
Esme was undoubtedly an engaging female protagonist but the supporting characters were equally as impressive. Lizzie, the maid (but also so much more than that) and ‘Ditte’, Esme’s honorary aunt and confidant, were fantastic characters in their own right. All of their interactions were laced with courage and compassion and I loved their comradery despite their different upbringings.
The story offers a fascinating insight into the evolution of words and their meanings. It clearly shows the impact language can have in defining class and gender. It was so frustrating how women’s experiences were diminished, as words were discarded and deemed unworthy by a team of men. I never fully appreciated how men and women could have different interpretations of certain words and how language could be limited and sanitised by rejecting and discarding certain words.
I enjoyed the story of Esme’s life and her determination to ‘save’ these rejected words. It wasn’t just Esme’s story. It was the story of so many women during the start of the 20th century as war was looming and women were fighting for their rights.
I found it to be a really emotional read, especially the ending. However I do feel with so many different themes throughout the story, some areas felt a little rushed, whereas others lingered on for a bit too long.
I really enjoyed this book and would definitely look out for future novels by Pip Williams.
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