This review has been made possible thanks to @NetGalley and Vintage, Penguin Random House for providing me with an Advance Reader’s Copy in exchange for an honest review.
The story follows Esme from 6 years old through her adulthood as she grows up with her father, a scholar working on the first Oxford English Dictionary, surrounded by words the team of editors decide between including and rejecting. She starts collecting the discarded words, keeping them safe in the bottom of a trunk under the bed. The words she discovers take her through the journey of growing up from a middle class child, through boarding school, and then back through her young adult years.
She experiences friendships, widens her horizons by discovering new words, used by working class and, having never been written down, they won’t be included in her father’s project. So she inadvertently starts her own, collecting phrases from women in her life, like Mabel selling her carved wooden figurines and very knowledgable in the kind of vocabulary that Esme was searching out, to Tilda, an actress friend of hers who gets very involved in the Suffragette movement, and most importantly, her love of words supported from an early age by her aunt Ditte, who invites her to Bath to be a research assistant for a novel on English history.
I loved the concept from the very beginning, as I have also been fascinated by the etymology of words since childhood, especially where there are different meanings used by different groups. The setting really appealed to me as a lover of historical literature but I think Williams really carved out a niche for herself and Esme in the existing history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The story seemed to me as full of wonder, firstly childlike, then a more grown-up, mature interest and passion for language.
The book was written beautifully, and while the first half took me a few days to get through, I never once lost interest. The second half I finished in a morning. There are moments of incredible depth in someone who is still a rather young person and there is also heartbreak and loss and grief. It’s an incredibly varied and complicated book with many sweet, funny, and bittersweet moments, just like there are in life. You find yourself rooting for the characters you’ve seen grow up before your eyes. It’s definitely a book I would recommend for anyone interested in linguistics, history, especially during the lead up to WW1 and the Women’s Rights movement.
My only wish is to go back to the start and read it again without having any memory of reading it the first time. It’s truly a unique, wonderful experience that I can’t get enough of!