It really annoys me when people say ‘this book isn’t what I expected’ and then write a negative review as if it’s the books fault that the reader had the wrong impression.
This book isn’t what I expected.
My review isn’t a negative one, but I do want to explain what I expected, in case others are similarly misled.
I thought this book was predominantly about words, and lost words, and gendered language. I expected the narrative to be driven by words and for them to be centre stage, or that they would somehow frame the narrative.
Books, and the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, are indeed important to the story. But words do not drive or frame the narrative. Esme, the main character, grows up around the men compiling the OED and herself becomes involved in that; she does find and compile ‘lost words’, in the varied senses of that phrase. The story, though, is the story of Esme as a young white English woman at the turn of the 20th century, and her experiences: with the OED, of sexism, of the women’s suffrage movement, of loss and love and friendship. She uses the words she finds to help navigate the world; she learns words from people of different classes in an effort to validate the existence of all words; and sometimes, of course, words are useless. Contrary to my expectations, words are secondary to the biography of Esme.
Having said all of that, this is a lovely novel. Williams writes beautifully, she does use the idea of words as gendered in interesting and meaningful ways, and Esme is of course living in a fascinating era. I wasn’t expecting the suffrage issue to be as significant as it turned out to be: I already know a lot about this as an issue, but for someone coming to it with little knowledge, this is a pretty great introduction to the actions (and words) of the suffragettes, and those who were opposed to their means.
You might notice that I don’t read a whole lot of realist fiction. When I do, I want it to do something interesting and clever and make me think. I have thought about gendered language, and about the gatekeepers of knowledge and language, so for me the ideas weren’t brand new. They are, though, presented in a deeply engaging manner, with neat intersections between ideas and with sympathy for different perspectives. I really enjoyed it.