It is often said, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. I must confess. I was drawn to this book because of its cover, and I am pleased to say, while I found the first few chapters of the story a little slow, the book as a whole did not disappoint.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is a historical fiction based on the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary. The story is set with a cast of true family names and historical events experienced as seen through the eyes of the fictional, motherless young girl, Esme. Starting from a young age, we follow Esme’s life as she discovers some words are more important than others. From her position under the sorting table of the Scriptorium, she slowly collects words discarded, lost, or deemed unimportant by the men who decide what goes into the Oxford Dictionary, and in time creates her own – The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Beginning from the late 1800’s the author draws us back to a time when men believed women could not possibly have the brain capacity to be an equal to men, be it professional or otherwise. Her attempt to offer her book of women’s words for the Bodleian Library is met with: “It’s an interesting project, but it’s of no scholarly importance.’’ And this, “… Beyond that, it would have to be a topic of significance.” No spoilers, let’s just say, despite this unrelenting background theme, Pip makes her own way in the man’s world.
I found Pip Williams’ story telling technique impelling. Certain incidents are not always explained as they happen, but are later revealed as memories related to more current events. For example, Esme returns home from boarding school under circumstances her father and aunt feel guilty about. Snippets of those events are revealed a little later when she is given her own workspace, in a corner of the Scriptorium. And, while the story is told by Esme, a view of happenings outside her world are provided to the reader through letters to Esme from her aunt, Ditte.
Even though The Dictionary of Lost Words is rich in historical events, I was not inundated with history overload, which sometimes can drown out the story. This book is unique and stands on its own.