So many times the blurbs on the front and back cover of novels are nothing but hyperbole, the novel failing to live up to exaggerated expectations, but Tom Keneally’s blurb,
“There will not be this year a more original novel published. I just know it.”
This is not hyperbole.
Esme’s mother died, so her father must look after her through the day. Esme is hiding under the placing table, her normal place of residence while her father and fellow lexicographers write the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, adding words, definitions. It is a tiring laborious process. It is from this “hiding place” under the table that Esme “steals” her first word. The slip of paper containing the word “Bondmaid” flutters down and lands in front of Esme who snatches it, not knowing the consequences that her actions will have in the future.
As time progresses and Esme grows older, she starts to build her own dictionary. A dictionary made up of words that will not be included in the official dictionary. She sources these words from many delightful characters and most of the words have a tendency to be female slang words, or words currently in the dictionary that take on a very different meaning for these ladies.
Firstly, there is her own “bondmaid”, Lizzie, who is more of a dear friend then a servant, remaining faithfully by Esme’s side throughout the whole novel. Then there is Mabel O’Shaughnessy, a truly brilliant character who lives in poverty and sells bits and bobs, trinkets, anything she thinks she can really, at the market. Mabel enlightens Esme to the crude, the crass, the slang words that would never be entered into the official dictionary. Tilda is an actress who Esme also finds at the markets. She is a suffragette, not afraid to get her hands bloody, or break a few laws in the interminable fight for the vote.
It is Tilda who opens Esme’s eyes to the plight of women and how they are treated as second class citizens without a voice. Williams’ uses Tilda to explore the theme of the suffragettes and the bravery of the women who strove to be heard and succeeded.
The book spans from 1887 to the epilogue in 1989. Therefore, Williams also covers the period of The Great War and the effect it had on every facet of life. All the able-bodied men were raring to go, some thinking it would all be over in weeks. None of them prepared for the terrible nightmare they were doomed to become trapped in. The war itself proves to be a repository. Esme visits an infirmary where wounded soldiers provide yet more words for the fledgling dictionary.
“If war could change the nature of men, it would surely change the nature of words.”
There is a lovely touch towards the end of the novel in which Esme is given the charge of looking after a young soldier who is suffering from severe shellshock, or PTSD. He remembers nothing, and simple words are beyond his comprehension. Esme uses the Esperanto language, a constructed, auxiliary language built with the intention to sow peace between nations, to help him. A beautiful message. It is a tribute to the power of words when the patient's doctor tells Esme,
“This is the first time he has been calmed by words instead of chloroform.”
Pip Williams has attempted and succeeded in giving a voice, although Esme is a work of fiction, to the women who worked just as tirelessly as the men on this dictionary. She has built a narrative that revolves around the stolen word “Bondmaid”. It starts the novel off, it is integral to the narrative, and then it is there in the epilogue.
A brilliant novel. Especially for lovers of words. 5 stars!
Pip was born in London, grew up in Sydney and now calls the Adelaide Hills home. She is co-author of the book Time Bomb: Work Rest and Play in Australia Today (New South Press, 2012) and in 2017 she wrote One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life, which was published with Affirm Press to wide acclaim. Pip has also published travel articles, book reviews, flash fiction and poetry.
I have left a link to a video here of Pip talking about the book, definitely worth a look if you loved the book - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9qV_3mPWes