This novel is historical fiction at its finest. How the Oxford Dictionary came to be was an arduous process that took decades, and I didn’t realize until reading this novel how intense and long the process was. The credit usually goes to men. And with all those men, you can imagine that words used by or applying to women were dismissed…hence the phrase “all words are not created equal”. But there were women who contributed, albeit behind the scenes. Which leads to this heartbreaking and beautiful novel about the importance of words in both connecting and dividing men and women, and the reminder that what we say and do today will be a guide for the next generation. Words matter.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams introduces us to the fictional Esme, whose delightful curiosity leads to her mission to collect “lost” words from regular working women, including those who work for her. Although not rich, she is better off than most which leads to a sheltered existence and endearing naïveté. She is inspired by words starting at an early age because she regularly goes to work with her single father, who is employed at a scriptorium. One day, she finds a scrap of paper that says “bondmaid”. So begins her journey into finding words spoken by women or are about women that often get lost in meaning, or ignored entirely. Even as Esme herself experiences unspeakable loss, she continues to find words because she has the wisdom to know they will outlive her. They will outlive all of us. So they must be documented. And the people who spoke these words matter, too, and deserve to be remembered.
This was a sad one. It’s one of those books that rips your heart out, and leaves you feeling different even days later. Although the star of the show is the dictionary and Esme’s dedication to it, the novel has war, disease, death, and inequality peppered throughout its pages. I learned so much from Esme, how hard decisions shaped her often as a result of society’s unrealistic expectations of women. And her maid Lizzie? What a a beautiful character. Like the dictionary, this book tells the truth without any commentary. Because life is devastating, love is lost, and, yes, people will leave us.
The only reason I gave this four stars instead of five was because there were things that were introduced but never brought up again. What happened to Esme in school? It seemed to have traumatized her but it’s left so vague. And her time in the VA hospital spoke to Esme’s kind and generous nature, but was it necessary? Otherwise, this is 100% worth your time.
Conclusion: Read these words, because they will forever stay with you.
Rating: 4/5 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Esme: Florence Pugh
Da: David Thewlis
Lizzie: Felicity Jones
Gareth: Nicholas Hoult
Ditte: Jennifer Saunders
Mr. Murray: Sir Michael Gamdon