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Analyses Of First Lines #3

I’ve had some pretty great books come into my life lately, whether through acquisition – physical or digital – or just because I’m particularly aware of them at the moment, for whatever reason. Books I want to talk about; I’m realising more and more the value of less rigid thinking when it comes to talking about literature here. Another first analysis post seemed the best approach.

I haven’t included every book that I’m working with because there are first lines that just don’t inspire. Copying out all the possible first lines I could have used for this post has demonstrated to me that as important as the first line is known to be, many times this is forgotten. Sometimes the value inherent in a first line is passed to the second. Other times the writing style the author has employed means the concept of the first line is altered (one book had single words as the first few sentences). Yet more times, however, it just seems an opportunity missed.

A realisation upon a realisation, if you will – a magnificent first line can and often does equate to a magnificent book, be the book great for its writing or story or characters. And it can really heighten your desire to read the book. When I received Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck, it wasn’t via the postbox – the postman had to ring the bell. The book is a tome and upon seeing it I felt somewhere in between very interested due to its fairly classic status and relief that I had decided to schedule it – then sight unseen – during a time that was otherwise free. But reading the first line, that worry has gone. One line and I know I’m going to enjoy it, likely a great deal.

Something that has occurred to me while writing these posts: does my knowledge of a book, or lack thereof, change or aid the way I analyse the first line? (By knowledge I mean having read the book previously.) I think it likely does on an unconscious level because I know the answers, but what I am finding, for certain, is that my continuing to analyse first lines makes my analyses more thorough, enough to balance out any bias.

Alexander Weinstein’s Children Of The New World

We’re sitting around the table eating Cheerios – my wife sipping tea, Mika playing with her spoon, me suggesting apple picking over the weekend – when Yang slams his head into his cereal bowl.

Book cover

This book is a short story collection, so this line is the first line of the first story, which is called Saying Goodbye To Yang. If the sentence didn’t suggest a death, that title surely does, but then where these two pieces of information are concerned, it’s not a foregone conclusion. If the narrator is the husband of the family and we’ve a wife and child, Mika, do we first assume – title aside – that Yang is a child, too, and thus in all likelihood would be swiftly saved from any drowning by his parents?

Taking the title into it, and the word ‘slams’, we suddenly have a potentially older person, potentially having a stroke. (We could also still have a child having an episode or sudden issue, too.) Taken out of context, ‘slams’ is a pretty extreme word if we were to consider a child playing with his food, and pretty extreme if the cereal bowl is your average cereal bowl and thus difficult to ‘slam’ into if it’s on the table.

In context, it’s a particularly good choice of word. The best short stories tend to get straight to the point and/or leave you shocked by the end and so Weinstein’s first line places you not only in the situation but at the exact catalytic moment. Little time for character description, he gives you the basics – child, wife, husband, leaving you to assume stereotypical ages if you wish – and gets straight to the action. The characters as people may not be important, we don’t know yet, but if their personalities aren’t a focus, you still have enough to go on.

And if you wanted to know location and time period, you’ve Cheerios and apple picking for help – Cheerios suggests present day (no further than 1945 according to Wikipedia), apple picking presumably means near the countryside. Whilst Weinstein could have left out the extra content, could have left out the wife and Mika from the sentence, it rounds off the introduction well.

And whilst it does sound short-story like, if would fit a novel. I love it.

Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck

One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad.

Book cover

Here we have the line I spoke of in my introduction. There is so much information in this sentence; it may be very long but when you consider the book was written in the 1940s (1946 to be exact) that’s suddenly neither here nor there.

In this one line we get a fully-fledged description of the person who is presumably to be our narrator. She had been in a relationship, possibly an extramarital affair, and whilst the fact the two have quarrelled isn’t too much a sign of anything – other than, perhaps, a signal of why they’re no longer together – her ‘black mood’ is. This isn’t one black mood – it’s written possessively and in the plural. She gets these moods fairly often. They are part of her personality; like the way the rest of the sentence refers to the effects of this mood, the author hints that this may be a difficult character to read about at times. That ‘fruitlessly’ suggests she expected a call – why? Do they often make up? Is she needy? Does she expect an apology? Not everything is apparent yet but you’re given some big clues as to what you’re getting in to from the start.

Whether part of the black mood or just a quirk of sorts, this narrator is likely superstitious, naming the ninth floor unlucky for its number. Either that or something in the novel will render her hotel room or floor unlucky and if the latter then again, she’s telling us up front. And a last hint of personality – she’s feeling bad. This is likely to do with the quarrel, however we don’t yet know if her feeling bad is due to remorse or that quarrels and black moods themselves make her angry.

Does a hotel room on Fifth Avenue speak of wealth? Of hers or of her lover’s? And if the room is lonely had she been staying in it herself or is ‘lonely’ a hint to it having been a room she shared with her lover prior to the quarrel? These are things to find out.

We’ve something of a possibility of an anti-heroine to contemplate…

Helen Irene Young’s The May Queen

It was the first thing to come between May and the carnival.

Book cover

May likes the carnival and a few things, at least, are going to come between her and its parade. Whether we’re going to read about the carnival itself is not known at this point – first, we have to see how much time the ‘things’ are going to take up. May might not get to go to the carnival at all.

With this sentence, Young shows that her book, or at least the beginnings of it, are going to be about some sort of conflict. This book is going to have issues in it of some sort, unless ‘come between’ is taken literally and there are obstacles on the road between May and the parade. To an extent, we can guess May’s age – she’s likely a child, looking forward to the carnival.

Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep

Mrs Creasy disappeared on a Monday.

Book cover

A disappearance and a name. We’re either going to go back in time for a bit, or we’re going to see the after-effects of the disappearance. Monday – does this suggest 7 days’ worth of reports as to what happened/happens next? And the person is married or widowed – will we hear from her spouse or hear the story of her spouse, whose presence or death or so forth, may have caused the disappearance?

This is a short sentence and there’s not much to go on, at least if we compare it to others, but it does tell us what we’re about to read. It doesn’t tell us if the story of Mrs Creasy will make up the entire book or not, but we can assume that if it doesn’t, the rest of the book will be relative – there will be other disappearances or such goings on.

Joanna Hickson’s First Of The Tudors

Flashes of iridescence gleamed like fireflies in the gloom of the small tower chamber.

Book cover

This sentence is full of highly descriptive words that draw attention to colour, beauty. Light, which we can expect is needed given the ‘gloom’ of a ‘small’ room. The stereotype of a tower is here in its element and whilst this is historical fiction rather than fantasy, the semblance to the idea of the high unreachable tower works in the context of the sentence, works as a way to set up your image of the scene even if it’s not going to be carried on past the full stop. Besides this, we can assume the scene is a bedroom, possibly an anti-room of some sort. If the former, we are perhaps reading about a squire or other servant, someone who is in a position to be staying in a castle (tower) but not high enough in society to be in a big room.

Given the historical nature, what are the flashes of iridescence? Is a lamp being lit or is a candle burning? Is the person going to bed or are they awake and reading, or talking to someone?

To me this sentence is very much about readying you for an evening of historical fiction, drawing you to the (potential – we don’t yet know!) comfort of what you’re about to read. It sets the historical scene, beckoning you with an image that draws wonder.

Kit De Waal’s My Name Is Leon

No one has to tell Leon that this is a special moment.

Book cover

Something positive will likely follow this sentence. A celebration of sorts; no matter whether it’s a special moment in the sense of a surprise party or the start of a friendship, or whether it’s that something positive is to come from something not so good, we’re starting on a high. We also get a name, which is obviously one of our main characters – even if the title did not name him, that his name is given in the first sentence says it all.

We’re going to be privy to this special moment, in a moment, and signs suggest this is going to be a good read.

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon.

Book cover

Is this to be our main character, or does the night and body of water suggest this young man won’t be here long? Is this a report and the man is dead? We haven’t been given his name – will this be a mystery?

It is easy to jump to conclusions with this sentence, to realise the possibility of a mystery or thriller – so often such books employ darkness and water and this sentence has a lot of blues and blacks in it. The bank, the ‘Blackwater’ (although this is the name of the water), cold, moon. But it could be many things – it could be a way of introducing us to a historical setting, to a dock or gloomy alleyway, some place that has Victorian and Dickens all over it.

One thing we do know for certain is what writing style we’ll be dealing with or, at least, if we consider the high usage of prologues recently, the style of the first few pages. In fact the writing very much fits the current prologue style – it would be fair to assume that’s what we have here and if it is indeed a prologue then the idea of mystery may well be true.

In Conclusion

I think it’s interesting to compare sentences from older books, newer books, and different genres – particularly old and new. There is such a difference between now and before, and we’ve this whole new genre of ‘literary fiction’ that a lot of classics may well fit… but not completely because we are applying new concepts to old works. I knew that you could tell a literary fiction book from its writing style, its tone – at least usually – but hadn’t really paid attention to just how soon this becomes apparent. ‘Genre fiction’, I think, is less apparent, perhaps partly because some books cross over but also because the defining lines just aren’t as defining as they are ‘supposed’ to be – something I rather like.

Which recent reads drew you in from the start? And did the books continue to be good?

 
 

Kelly

May 10, 2017, 4:27 pm

When browsing in a bookstore, first lines can make or break a choice for me. I read blog that participates in a weekly “book beginnings” meme and I normally include the first line of a book in my reviews – all to say I’m quite conscious of the importance of those first words.

I’m currently reading True Grit by Charles Portis and, already familiar with the story, the opening line perfectly sets the tone for the remainder of the book.

Bookertalk

May 11, 2017, 10:10 pm

I tried to do a post a few years ago about first lines in ‘classic’ reads but then discovered that often the first line wasn’t that memorable or rivetting. Of course there are exceptions (some of your examples prove that) but often you need to read to the second or third sentence to get the full effect

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