Crudo

Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralysed UK, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties trying to adjust to making a lifelong commitment just as Trump is tweeting the world into nuclear war. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead, the planet is hotting up. Is it really worth learning to love when the end of the world is nigh? And how do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?

Olivia Laing radically rewires the novel in a brilliant, funny and emphatically raw account of love in the apocalypse. Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.


After falling utterly in love with The Lonely City, I got pretty obsessed with Olivia Laing. I did the usual thing I do in these instances – sought out as many podcast interviews as I could. Olivia Laing gives good podcast. My favourite of her interviews – as is so often the case – was on Literary Friction (my favourite of the bookish podcasts I listen to), where she talked about her novel Crudo, written in a frenzy over seven weeks in the summer of 2017.

The book is about existing during that summer – the early days of the Trump presidency, the first fallout after the Brexit vote and the ongoing tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s about the numbing horror of the 24-hour news cycle, the creeping sense of detached fear we have that maybe we’re in the midst of a long and drawn out apocalypse, where the most we can hope for is to bow out before the bloody end – and this was before most of us knew what a zoonotic disease was, and the role our casual destruction of the planet played in creating them. It’s also a book about learning to be married in your forties, having spent the vast majority of your life alone. On Literary Friction, Laing said it was, in part, a book about selfishness.

A weird thing about Crudo that you don’t strictly need to know going in is that is it is sort of autobiographical – Laing herself was a woman just married in her forties navigating the relentless horror of that summer, and is sort of written as Kathy Acker, a famous post-modernist writer who died in 1997. Laing writes from the perspective of an invented Acker, who in turn built a career out of theft: she wrote her own re-imaginings of Great Expectations and Don Quixote, among others. Like Laing, Kathy loved to write from the invented perspectives of the famous and dead.

Reading Crudo you get whiplash. It is the perfect microcosm of modern life – as they describe it on Literary Friction, the epitome of the state of the nation novel – veering between the different sorts of excess we have at our fingertips. The too much news contrasts with the too much food, horror on screen is read against a backdrop of the glorious Italian summer Kathy spends eating and drinking with her new husband. Crudo means raw in Italian – that’s what it is. This book is about the way the world leaves you raw – and how opening yourself up to someone by marrying them does the same thing.

Crudo is particular to that summer, but applicable to the others that have come since. Trump is no longer president, but Trumpism is still thriving and I’m scared of what will happen next now it is freed from the few remaining threads of accountability the White House provided. Here in the UK, we Brexited, and we’re not focused on it because there is so much else to worry about, but it is chaos and it is destroying businesses, and the consequences in Northern Ireland are as bad as all of the experts nobody listened to predicted. The situations have shifted, but the feeling is the same. The impending doom. There was an odd sort of comfort in sitting in that for Laing for a while, like I recaptured, briefly, that feeling of all being in it together we glimpsed in the early days of the pandemic, when people stood in doorways banging saucepans for the NHS just to feel like they were doing something.

It is not a hopeful book, but it is not strictly a depressing one either. It’s all so beautifully normal – Kathy’s lazy days, the small fights with her new husband that feel huge until they don’t anymore, her constant desire for more space from the man until she has it, and the terrible feeling of missing him when she finally does. It’s a snapshot of a moment that adds up to a devastating and intimate portrait of a person in the midst of a life-shifting summer – but the reality of lift shifting is it doesn’t feel especially huge at the time – in what feels like a world-ending crisis, but actually turns out to be a precursor for whatever comes next. Though Olivia didn’t know that then.

It made me wonder what this crisis is a precursor to.

Sometimes you just have to sit in it for a while, and there’s no one better to do that with than Olivia Laing.

The Liars Dictionary

Mountweazel (n.) a fake entry deliberately inserted into a dictionary or work of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.

It is the final year of the nineteenth century and Peter Winceworth has reached the letter ‘S’, toiling away for the much-anticipated Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He is increasingly uneasy that his colleagues are attempting to coral language and regiment facts. Compelled to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom, Winceworth begins inserting fictitious entries into the dictionary.

In the present day, young intern Mallory is tasked with uncovering the mountweazels as the text of the dictionary is digitised. Through the fake words, she finds she has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires. More pressingly, she must also field daily threatening phone calls. Is a suggested change to the definition of marriage (n.) really so controversial? And does the caller really intend for the Swansby’s staff to ‘burn in hell’?

As their two narratives combine, Winceworth and Mallory must discover how to negotiate the complexities of an often nonsensical, untrustworthy, hoax-strewn and undefineable life.

The Liars Dictionary explores the themes of trust and creativity, and celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language. It is an exhilarating debut novel from a formidably brilliant young writer.


The Liars Dictionary is a playful novel about the irony of language – even when presented with a literal encyclopaedia of words, self expression remains just out of reach. Told through two socially uncomfortable narrators – Peter Winceworth in the 19th century and half-closeted intern Mallory in the present day – Eley Williams explores the undefinable bulk of human experience.

I tend to stay away from self consciously ‘bookish’ reads – anything set in a book shop, books about authors (one rung below movies about Hollywood on the ladder of annoying things no one really needs), etc – so I worry that others out there like me might be put off when I say that The Liars Dictionary is a book that delights in nerding out about words. Please don’t be. This is no literary Once Upon a Time In Hollywood – it’s a story about expressing yourself, and the often woeful inadequacy of language in the face of that task. It’s about how we’re compelled to try anyway, even holding the weight of a history filled with devastating communication failures – small and large.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews grouping Eley Williams with writers like Ali Smith and George Saunders and while I think both are fair comparisons – and I love Saunders and I like Smith in certain doses –there is a self concious whimsy to their writing that I didn’t feel during The Liars Dictionary, to its benefit. There is something about the closely observed portrayal of the discomfort that both Winceworth and Mallory feel about themselves that kept the novel grounded, even in its most playful moments.

I love books that play out across different timelines, and in The Liars Dictionary, Williams does it to delightful effect. As you’ll gather from the summary above, the bulk of Mallory’s work for her internship digitising the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary has become seeking out and removing mountweazels – fake words inserted into the dictionary by its creators. Mountweazels are actually a real thing, and much like the paper towns used by cartographers (and beloved by the likes of Margo Roth Speigelman), they are inserted as copyright markers – so if an Oxford English fake word suddenly shows up, for example, in the Merriam Webster, you know some copying has taken place. However, it turns out in Swansby’s, there is not just one mountweazel but many peppered throughout, words like Relectoblivious (adj.), accidentally rereading a phrase or line due to lack of focus or desire to finish; Prognostisumption (n.), belief, as made by glimpsing aspects of something from a distance; and Agrupt (adj.), irritation caused by having a denouement ruined. Mallory must seek out and remove the markers of this invented language, even as she wonders at the stories of the person who created it.

We don’t have to wonder. The novel slips seamlessly back to the 19th century where we get to see, in real time, the experiences and events that would lead Peter to invent those words. We feel with him the indefinable experiences he seeks to give language too – all experiences he is too afraid to say out loud and so hides them instead in the pages of the encyclopaedic dictionary he and a legion of other lexicographers have dedicated their professional lives to. I should mention here another unique aspect of the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary is that it never got finished. There were too many words.

The Liars Dictionary grapples with expression and definition in an utterly unique fashion, exploring language in all its limits and invention to captivating effect. It’s a quietly hopeful book, equal parts silly (I mean, an uncomfortable guy is literally called Winceworth) and profound.

The 3 bookish podcasts you need

2020 has been the year of the podcast. I have always been a listener, but as my anxiety levels have increased (and… I mean… 2020.) my pod hours have sky rocketed. Truthfully, I probably spend an unhealthy amount of time listening to podcasts, but as vices go, I could have chosen much worse. For the first time, this year I started deliberately seeking out bookish podcasts, so today I thought I’d share three of my favourites.


Literary Friction
Bookish, introspective, whip smart and brimming with exciting recommendations, it’s always a good day when a new episode of Literary Friction lands in my feed. Hosted by Carrie Plitt and Octavia Bright, expect in-depth author interviews and thematic discussions on everything from the necessity of hope, to sisterhood, race, therapy, vanity, social media and so much more. I recommend listening in a hot bath – some sort of bubbles/salts essential – with a towel pillow. Literary Friction is the perfect accompaniment to a lazy, introspective Sunday afternoon.

Dip in: State of the Nation with Olivia Laing. Recorded in 2018 with the release of her novel Crudo, this is a look at the role of the state of the nation novel – those books that capture the Zeitgeist and push us to reflect on the current moment.

City of Voices with Zadie Smith. Honestly I could listen to Zadie Smith talk all day. This episode, a live recording of an interview celebrating the release of Grand Union, Smith’s first short story collection, is all about embracing our inner chaos and turning our backs on the influence of social media (to whatever extent that is still possible).


Book Riot
If you’re into the newsy, gossipy side of the book world then Book Riot, hosted by Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Joines Schinsky is the show for you. A weekly delve into the latest in the book world, they cover the bookish buzz, scandals and publishing insider info you need to know. As someone always several weeks behind of the goss – at least before I listened to this show – I get a lot of satisfaction being up to date with what’s going on, whether that’s the books making the awards lists, the publishers launching new, exciting imprints or the tell-all essays on whatever latest old science fiction writer turned out to be a perv. I would say I think this show suffers from being slightly too regular (they’re pushing two pods a week at the moment) but you can always skip one when they fall too far into the irrelevant (for example there’s one in my feed right now about The West Wing I don’t feel the need to listen to). Overall though, Jeff and Rebecca’s critical eye to the publishing world and regular dose of bookish excitement is enriching, and has provided me with a much greater insight into the industry than I previously had.

Dip In: Our Favourite Reads of Summer 2020. Who doesn’t like a good recommendations show? As if we don’t already have longer TBRs than we could ever possibly tackle! What I particularly enjoy about Jeff and Rebecca’s recommendations is they don’t necessarily feel the need of pick up every book simply because it’s ‘of the moment’ – there’ll always be a few gems in their lists I’ve never heard of before.

Deals deals deals. A very publishing ‘inside baseball’ type episode, this is a look at the recently announced book deals and pretty much whether or not Jeff and Rebecca think they’re worth the money. Again, if you’re interested in the inner workings of the publishing industry then this conversation will interest you.


The High Low
While technically a news and pop culture show, The High Low, hosted by writers Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton, has a strongly bookish flavour. It’s a show that celebrates writing, and is filled with author interviews, bookish recommendations and links to the best articles and essays Pandora and Dolly have enjoyed that week (something that makes my journalist heart oh-so-happy). As the name implies, The High Low embraces the silly as much as the serious, giving rise to a wide-ranging conversation that one week might centre an absolutely devastating, necessary piece of political writing, and the next might be consumed by an essay on what coronavirus means for the future of the buffet (someone really wrote this, and it was fantastic).

The High Low just aired its final episode (literally heartbreaking), but I think it still deserves its place on this list and I will be going back to listen to my favourite episodes again and again. Dolly and Pandora created a beautiful community of people celebrating things they loved and having challenging conversations with empathy and introspection. It might not be current any more, but it’ll always be relevant.

Dip in: Wiley’s Anti-Semitism, Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age & An Author Special With Nesrine Malik. Recorded back in July, the interview with Nesrine Malik (who, if you don’t know please Google all of her work immediately – this piece about cancel culture is a wonderful start point) about resisting cultural myths is vital listening.

Anti-Racism Resources & An Author Special with Candice Brathwaite. At some point I will finally get around to reviewing I Am Not Your Baby Mother, Candice Brathwaite’s utterly mesmerising memoir/ social and political commentary on Black motherhood in the UK. This episode of The High Low was where I first encountered her, and I fell in love immediately. It’s an utterly compelling conversation on the inequalities, joys and frustrations of Black motherhood in the UK, and the groundbreaking work in representation Candice has done in the last few years in the ridiculously white world of the mummy bloggers.

Do you listen to many podcasts? What are some of your favourites? Let me know in comments so I can keeping feeding my obsession