The Dictionary of Lost Words — Pip Williams

This is about as perfectly written a piece of historical fiction as I’ve ever read. It is the story of Esme from ages six to twenty-five and no— you don’t have to be a history buff, an Oxford English Dictionary nerd, a turn of the century social history expert, a fan of women’s suffrage lore, or someone interested in WWI to love this story. You will, however, come away from this novel with a strong sense of how both ordinary and extraordinary people lived in and around Oxford between 1896 and 1915, and in particular, how women of all classes fit into and, at times broke out of their social strata. Esme never knew her mother, who died when she was born. Her loving father, a lexicographer, takes her to his job at the Scriptorium, where he works on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. By 1896, when Esme is six, she has learned much about words, their origins and meanings, and how the men working on the OED think about words. Lizzie is a 13-year-old girl, “fortunate” enough to secure a place “in service” in the home of James Murray, the primary editor of the OED. Lizzie sometimes helps to care for young Esme. Esme, trying to understand what it means to be “in service,” asks Da if she will someday go into service, since this was a good thing for Lizzie. Da explains that for a girl of her station, being in service would be considered a hardship. “Service means different things to different people, Essy, depending on their position in society.” Esme develops an addiction to words and makes some bad choices. Her spinster godmother, who is a scholar living a distance from Oxford, offers some parenting advice to Da and he sends Esme off to boarding school in Scotland far from her sheltered life among words. When Esme ultimately returns to Oxford she becomes fascinated by spoken words that will never make it into the OED, the words of the market vendors, including a former prostitute with a broken and chipped china stand, a traveling actress and her brother, and people in the pubs and streets of Oxford. Esme collects their words, creating slips for them like those submitted to the OED, with quotes attributed to those who grow to trust her and start contributing their words to this odd young woman. Esme is not shy in collecting words that will never make the OED, including vulgarities still in use today and some long out of use. She brings life to those words that mean different things to different people and have different uses in different contexts. This is a book about women and truly multi-dimensional friendships and relationships that form, despite barriers, across classes, experiences, and conventions. It is partly a book about privilege and about the ways both devastating and more ordinary experiences — loss of a parent, serious injury, childbirth, exposure to new people in different contexts – change our perspectives and help us grow if we let them. As cliché as this may sound, it was totally engrossing. I read it in one very long day and wish it were not over. Thanks to #PenguinRandomHouse #RandomHouse for allowing me to read this unforgettable book via Net Galley.


	

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