The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The origins of the Oxford English Dictionary have been explored by a number of authors over the years – The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by Simon Winchester (a fabulous read) a non-fiction book and recently a film, possibly being the most famous. Yet, Pip Williams‘s, The Dictionary of Lost Words, though a work of fiction (using an accurate historic setting) could well topple Winchester from this throne.

Lost Words takes the creation of the OED as its raison d’être, but instead of focusing on the primary male actors in the development of the dictionary, it concentrates on the women and the female-centric words that were excised from the original work – for no other reason than they weren’t regarded as having enough significance. 

Weaving the fictional story of Esme, the daughter of one of the lexicologists working on the dictionary project, we follow her from early childhood where she finds the word “bondmaid”, a word that refers exclusively to a subordinate female position, discarded on the floor of the “Scriptorium”. This is the place where her father and his colleagues work tirelessly to collect and collate words under the supervision of the real historical figure, Sir James Murray. Esme’s discovery and the word’s exclusion sparks a life-long quest in Esme, to understand the power of words, why and how they shape us and why some words are selected for inclusion in such an important work and others aren’t. I don’t want to say too much more and risk spoiling what unfolds. Needless to say, with a backdrop that includes the rise of the Suffragette movement and World War I, Esme’s professional and personal journey, which have words at their very heart, is riveting, deeply moving, as well as beautifully and lyrically written. On top of that, it’s an erudite exposition on the power of language, how it evolves (or not), and why the (male) gate-keepers are so reluctant to give ground. It’s about power, its imbalance and who is regarded as having a legitimate voice and why and how others are silenced. It’s also about women’s struggles for recognition and agency in a world that was keen to deny them both – even when they were intrinsic to the very project that enabled their exclusion. 

I couldn’t stop reading this book, not only is it exquisitely written, but it’s also completely engrossing. Esme’s life and the wonderful characters who enrich it, and the events that become significant and heart-breaking yardsticks are captivating, but so was the story of the English language. While on the one hand, I was turning pages rapidly, I also didn’t want the book to end. 

I cannot recommend this glorious book highly enough. It will go down as one of my all-time favourites and that is a big call. 
Honestly, I am so proud of Australian women writers. Seriously, I’ve just read about eight magnificent books by them in a row – all completely different and yet all telling wonderful stories in rich, creative and intelligent ways. Thank you. Thank you. 

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A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George

Having adored the Inspector Lynley series since I first stumbled upon it years ago, and always enjoying the beauty and detail of George’s sublime writing, I’d found a few of the more recent Lynley books a little disappointing in terms of the main character, so much so, in one of my reviews I actually filed a Missing Persons Report on the Eighth Earl of Asherton, one Inspector Thomas Lynley.

22571556When I picked up this nineteenth instalment in the series, A Banquet of Consequences, I first though, oh no! Tommy and Barbara Havers, his prickly side-kick with a propensity for pop tarts and trakky daks, have gone AWOL. So much so, they don’t really appear, except in some readily forgettable scenes till almost a third of the way through the book. Having said that, the narrative that commences the book, a tale of many threads that take a while to join and then unravel, is engrossing. It’s so good, in fact, that Havers and Lynely feel like intrusions or even unnecessary – goodness! Did I write that? Yet, before long, Lynley and Havers step up and become an intrinsic part of this fascinating tale of families, love, loss, huge dysfunction and a betrayal of trust like no other.

So, while I almost gave up on the book early, believing that George had abandoned her dynamic duo in favour of another story, relegating them to almost laughable secondary roles as Havers undergoes an attempted make-over to please her irrational and demanding boss and presage a return to form, and Lynley languishes in love, I am so glad I didn’t. George doesn’t let the reader or fans of Thomas Lynely and Barbara Havers down. Though they don’t burst onto the scene until well into the book, with her accustomed mastery, George allows us peeps of them while introducing the reader to a multitude of complex, rich and deep characters, from a feminist scholar and author, Clare Abbott, to her anxiety-ridden publisher, a young man, Will, suffering from Tourettes Syndrome and crippling doubts, and his heavily tattooed and pierced girlfriend, Lily. There’s Will’s psychologist brother, Charlie, and his unhappy wife, India, and the pushy, narcissistic mother of the two men, Caroline, who is married to the down to earth baker, Alistair – just to name a few.

At first, you think, what have these people to do with anything? Then, a tragedy occurs and you find yourself thinking, that’s simply awful but what role does it play in this mystery, especially when there seems to be no mystery and no relationship between all these characters in the unfolding tale? Please explain!

Well, explain George does… and how.

It turns out the least likeable and most magnificently drawn of these characters, the hugely disordered Caroline, is the bridge uniting what at first appears to be two disparate groups of people as Caroline works for Clare Abbott. Authoritarian and prone to organising those who don’t wish to be, Caroline is an unpleasant and entirely selfish force to be reckoned with, something Barbara Havers experiences first hand.

When a death occurs that on the surface appears like suicide but upon further investigation turns out to be murder, Havers is contacted by one fot he characters for her help. Begging Lynley to intervene with Superintendent Isabelle Ardery (who, unfortunately, is still at the helm of the Met) and grant her the case, Havers has her wishes (against great odds) fuflilled. Sent to a small town, Havers, along with Winston Nkata, begins to examine the lives of all these people to whom the reader has already been introduced, uncovering a hotbed of secrets, lies, deceptions and betrayals. Relying on her boss, Lynley, in London to pursue other leads, when another person involved with the case is almost killed, both Havers and Lynley uncover more than they ever bargained for…

I don’t want to give away any of this plot as it is a cracker. The characters are amazingly well drawn, so much so, I can forgive George the faffing around at the beginning with Havers and Dorothea (which almost had me putting down the book) and the fact the lead roles, Tommy and Barb don’t really take centre stage for pages and pages.

This is a terrific crime novel and a great story, full of twists, turns, excellent writing, forensic but fascinating (in the real sense of the word – unable to turn away from because it is both awful and thrilling) exploration of families – the roles each member plays, the masks they wear, how behaviours impact upon others, how we bury truths and live lies.

The conclusion is so horrendous and though you see it coming in some senses, you do not want it to arrive. It’s like watching a crash you cannot stop or change, you just have to witness the impact, but already know the damage that’s been done.

It’s not only the characters about whom the crime revolves who are wonderfully crafted, Tommy and Barb as well as Winston are also fully rounded and eminently satisfying to read and champion. Though Tommy still grieves and is forever changed by the terrible loss he’s suffered, he is sharp, kind and loyal – the old Inspector hewn afresh; a little careworn and vulnerable, but no less noble in every sense of the word. And Barb, well she too has been hurt and yet gained from the experiences she endured in the last novel (which was wonderful). Ardery, however, is an unreasonable and quite vindictive woman whom I hope George transfers soon. She is predictable as well – which makes her boring. Just like Haver’s career, this series does not need her.

Overall, a fabulous and gripping read I found hard to put down.


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Book Review: The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss

One of the most thoughtful and erudite books on the female experience I have read in a long time. Rather than being exclusive or looking to apportion blame, Moss tackles the sometimes divisive subject of feminism and females through inclusivity and such a depth of understanding of culture, society and the various forces that shape us all.22309219

Part memoir, part treatise on the way women are labelled and stereotyped and then read accordingly (and men as well), Moss patiently and cleverly deconstructs a range of assumptions, using a mixture of theory, excellent research, personal experience and anecdotes.

Commencing with herself as subject, she then goes on to explain her objectification – as model, a body, a survivor and even as a writer. Having entered the fashion industry at an early age, her desire to be a professional writer was delayed but when she finally did have her first novel published, she found that the “tag” of model and the negative (and at times crushing) social and cultural assumptions of this profession haunted her aspirations. Not one to let this deter her, Moss unpacks her slow acceptance by the literary scene with humour and stoicism, and uses it as a case study through which to examine the ways in which women are constructed in mainstream culture and why this happens and, more importantly, why it’s essential to critically examine these reductive representations and understand the limitations they impose on subjectivity and female agency.

Lucid, entertaining and always engaging, Moss briefly considers the female experience through history, thus providing a context before discussing topics such as “gender wars”, male and female beauty, the notion of the invisible and visible woman (the latter through marketing and advertising) as well as how the social and cultural roles of mother and father, among many others, impact, define and either elevate or reduce us.

Moss gently but very persuasively argues that while we have a tendency in society to target individual women (and sometimes men) for harsh criticism and worse, we’re actually failing to identify and thus change the greater forces that work to uphold and restrict women’s agency. Complicit in patriarchal culture we might be, but that doesn’t mean we cannot step outside its constraints or work to change it. Her message is strong and beautifully and succinctly delivered. Her chapter on “The Feminist” had me cheering.

Moss also tackles why we need to deconstruct and critically think about the images that bombard us, the labels that we so readily bestow. She discusses the value we assign to women’s appearances and how these are also connected to morality, redundancy, conformity and a great many other emotional and psychological hurdles and burdens. Citing statistics and a great many studies, she demonstrates the lack of female representation (and diversity) in everything from parliament, politics generally, Hollywood, workplaces, education, role-models, to the dearth of meaningful representation of women of all ages, shapes, sizes and talents, in culture generally. Women are still rendered as object (often domesticated) and the power of our bodies lies mostly in their ability to arouse desire or open wallets – in other words, female bodies are most often used to sell – even the idea of competition to each other. But what Moss also investigates are the ideas our bodies both sell and perpetuate in the limited representations available and what the labels thus assigned do to our standing and understanding or ourselves and others – at the individual, family, relationship, social and political level.

The tropes of maiden, mother and crone as well as “Madonna” and “Whore” enjoy a great deal of scrutiny throughout the book, and the power they have had historically, socially and culturally to shape an understanding of women – through popular culture and beyond – is explored.

A powerful book but without being preachy, I could not put this down. If I was still lecturing at university, I would place it on my courses. As it is, I can only recommend that people of all ages, both sexes, read it. It’s an enriching, thought-provoking experience that I for one am so glad I had and will do so again.

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