The Dictionary of Lost Words, Review: Thought-provoking

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is moving, thought-provoking historical fiction based on real people and events that shaped society. Read my full review.

The Dictionary of Lost Words, Review - Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words Synopsis

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicogaphers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means “slave girl,” she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.

(Penguin Random House, April 2021; First published by Affirm Press in March 2020)

Genre: Historical, Literature, Drama, Romance

Disclosure: If you click a link in this post and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission.

The Dictionary of Lost Words Review

In this highly perceptive and nuanced historical fiction based on fact, Pip Williams honours the quiet industry, resilience and invaluable contribution of all those who, for whatever reason, are under-appreciated by society.

Reportedly, Williams’ novel inspiration was born from “two simple questions. Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, is it possible that we have lost something in the process of defining them?”.

I found lead character Esme’s vividly authentic mix of intellectual curiosity and quiet insecurities beguiling. Her reverence and love for words and their variant meanings comparable to Liesel Meminger’s in The Book Thief.

Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think? They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip.

But she is far from the only character within The Dictionary of Lost Words that readers will grow immensely fond of, and dare I say uncommonly attached to. The emotional honesty shared between the characters brought to life on these pages (female and male) will have even the most stoic reaching for tissues.

“Me needlework will always be here,” she said. “I see this and I feel…well, I don’t know the word. Like I’ll always be here.” 

Literary themes

By illuminating and deeply personalising the societal and structural context within which historical records were produced, Williams explores both their value and inherent bias. It reminds us of the power of words, to harm and control, but also to bridge gaps, to empower and to bring about change for the better.

The beauty of The Dictionary of Lost Words is it elevates the contributions of women without villainising or deriding the contributions of men. It heroes common kindness; not as an act of charity, but one of respect for every individual’s value no matter their gender or birth.

Astute, highly topical and memorable debut fiction from Pip Williams.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5 – Overall 4.5

Get your copy of The Dictionary of Lost Words from:

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More The Dictionary of Lost Words Reviews

“If you’re a word lover, linguist, lexicographer or grammarian, this is the novel you’ve been waiting for without even realizing it. If you never thought of words in this way before, don’t worry: Williams will convince you of a word’s importance in a most lovely and charismatic story.”—Book Reporter

“In The Dictionary of Lost Words, 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.” – Sydney Morning Herald

“This charming, inventive, and utterly irresistible novel is the story we all need right now. Words have never mattered more, as Pip Williams illuminates in her unforgettable debut.”—Susan Wiggs, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost and Found Bookshop

“A marvelous fiction about the power of language to elevate or repress.”—Geraldine Brooks, New York Times bestselling author of People of the Book

Screen Adaptations

It has been reported that Lisa Scott (Highview Productions) and Rebecca Summerton (Closer Productions) will adapt the book into a television series, with Pip Williams playing an executive producer role. This screen deal follows the stage adaptation of The Dictionary of Lost Words by the SA State Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company, which will premiere in Adelaide in September 2023 before showing at the Sydney Opera House in October 2023.

About the Author, Pip Williams

Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney, and now lives in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia with her family and an assortment of animals. She has spent most of her working life as a social researcher, studying what keeps us well and what helps us thrive, and she is the author of One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life, which was published in Australia to wide acclaim. Based on her original research in the Oxford English Dictionary archives, The Dictionary of Lost Words is her first novel. Check out her website.

This review counts toward my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2021 and the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge.