I signed up a couple of years ago to The Pigeonhole, it is an online book club where you get to read a book with others one stave at a time. A book is broken down into parts or staves and each day a new stave is released for you to read. It really makes you think about the book you are reading, but when the book is great it can be frustrating waiting for the next stave to be released. The first book I read with The Pigeonhole was Australian author Kim Kelly’s The Blue Mile, she is now one of my favourite authors.
A few weeks ago I got an email saying they were showcasing The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, I had seen this novel on Instagram through Affirm Press‘s posts and this book really appealed to me, so I signed up. 10 days ago the first stave was available and I was hooked, I couldn’t wait to get the email each day to read the next part.
This book is now firmly on my list of top 10 books for 2020, it was an interesting, emotional and powerful novel, covering so many subjects. It is a beautiful and engaging book and I had no idea where the story was going to lead me, right through to the end, Pip Williams never failed to surprise me. There were parts where I was silently begging her not to take me where I thought we might be going, and from the other readers’ comments, as we read, I wasn’t alone in this. There were also parts that caused me anger, grief, happiness, and so many other emotions, but I have to admit that the final stave had me in tears more than once.
Pip Williams has a way with words, her ability to convey what people are thinking or feeling, to describe a situation or the environment, to put words themselves into context was remarkable and beautiful. There were so many lines I’d have loved to have pulled out and shared.
The book begins in 1886 and carries us through to the epilogue in 1989, though the majority of the story is between 1886 and 1915. There is just so much in this novel I can’t begin to unpack it and I will be buying myself a copy so I can reread it. Esme is a child hiding under the table in the Scriptorium, the place, a garden shed in fact, where the majority of the Oxford English Dictionary was pieced together over several decades, one letter and one word at a time. It is the place Esme learns about words and their meanings and about the importance of words to different people.
“Some words are more important than others – I learned this, growing up in the Scriptorium. But it took me a long time to understand why.”
Esme collects a fallen word, Bondmaid, and hides it in a trunk, this is the start of her Dictionary of Lost Words, it is also the start of a journey to discover more words, words that are missing from the dictionary, words that ordinary people, especially women, use every day, but which are not given the importance that other words are given.
As Esme grows older she discovers the Suffragist movement and the Suffragettes, she discovers the women who work in the markets, the downtrodden and forgotten, the servants, the workers, other women who a person of Esme’s standing shouldn’t be mixing with, and she discovers Words. These are words she has never heard, words that have been left out of the dictionary, or whose meaning has been left out because it didn’t come from a scholarly source. I found this fascinating and reading the author’s notes about how the book came to be and the research she did was just as interesting.
“I know some quite bad words. I collect them from an old woman at the market in Oxford.”
“Well, it’s one thing to hear them in the market and quite another to have them roll around inside your mouth.” She took my dressing gown from the back of the door and helped me into it. “Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think?” she said, tying the sash around my belly as best she could. “They have shape and tecxure. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip. It can be quite cathartic in the right context.”
Esme’s life revolves around the Scriptorium, but through words and her experiences, she leads an interesting life. The cast of characters that share Esme’s life are varied, from the scholars in the Scriptorium, Lizzie, a maid in the big house, who becomes so much more, her Aunt Ditte who is a mentor, a teacher and more, Gareth who works in the print shop, and most importantly, her father, who if it wasn’t for the way he brought up his daughter as a single parent, none of what Esme achieved would have happened; all these people and more have a huge part to play in how Esme conducts her life.
Pip Williams shows us the inequality between men and women, not just in societal expectations, but in lack of opportunity for academic achievement, the fact women’s voices aren’t heard or respected, that they can do a degree, but can’t graduate. This is made very clear in how words are chosen for the dictionary that they are building. So many things we now take for granted, but at the same time we still have that inequality.
I highly recommend this novel, I’ve been struggling to stay on track with my reading this past month as I’ve said in previous posts and as I’ve read from many other readers, but this book had me wanting to read, needing to know what was going to happen next.
Thank you to The Pigeonhole, Pip Williams and Affirm Press for the opportunity to read this wonderful novel.
For those interested, there is a great video you can watch on Facebook through Dymocks Books, click here for the link.