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Analyses Of First Lines #4

Time for another of these posts – I’m over a slump that, I think it’s time admit, lasted three months, and I am desperate for some literary study. It made sense to focus on those books that have helped me out the most, as well as some I’ve simply enjoyed.

I don’t know what it is about close reading but it’s very appealing. As a slow reader, the current discussions on the benefits of close reading are heartening – I may not read that slowly but the idea that in slowness there’s the chance you’re engaging more with the text makes up somewhat for my eternal dismay over not getting through books quickly; I say that in view of my opinion of myself – I’ve always wished to be able to read faster but it’s one of those things that I can change only when concentrating.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greeness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well all smelled distinctly.

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Referring to one of the five senses without falling to the oft-used ‘look’. The use of smell here, with the author’s writing style, does a good job of setting the scene and highlighting what she wants to highlight. Would the thought of the ‘stately’ part of Princeton be as easy to imagine if she’d just ‘shown’ them? You also get the idea that Princeton is above all other American cities she’s known – perhaps the smell of nothingness is a sign that she relates it to success, to where she’s meant to be. It’s different to all the others and, as this is the start of the book, this difference is where the ‘conflict’ of the story may begin.

Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence

On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

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Date, time, place, straight away. Contemporary reference that if it were written nowadays might be considered a way to ‘date’ the book. We’re also given a hint as to the society we’re about to read about – one that likes the theatre, or opera (if we know who Nilsson is, we can assume she’s singing an adaptation of the Christopher Marlowe tale).

But beyond that we’re in the dark – this book could be about anything, and as it happens, the opera will serve more as something for Wharton to use to further her story.

Jessie Greengrass’ Sight

The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again.

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I love this, because you know exactly where you are – a book about motherhood with at least two children, or a book that will concern the pregnancy itself. You can also expect to be in one of those climates with ‘uncertain’ weather (this book is set in London) and that, owing to the choice of words and writing style, it’s a literary novel. And whether about motherhood or pregnancy, it will be about the self, wistful, maybe, poignant, perhaps.

Sherry Thomas’ The Luckiest Lady In London

For as far as he could trace back in time, Felix Rivendale had spent half an hour each day with his parents before teatime.

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We know rich people in the 1800s didn’t spend all that much time with their children, but this line, placed first, infers that that was the only time Felix got. We’re likely going to read further about his childhood, but as we already know the genre of this book, it’s apt to assume that one – it will be short – and two – this sentence will inform most of the rest of the text. It’s highly likely that the conflict between the main characters will revolve around Felix’s childhood.

Tony Peake’s North Facing

Sticks and stones, Paul’s mother would say, may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.

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That common phrase that we’ve long since noted doesn’t mean anything good.

Away from any knowledge of the book, this ushers in a few possible storylines – a friend’s mother looking out for the character; Paul having a conversation with his mother; something said that may turn out to be otherwise irrelevant to the story. The last can often happen but given the phrase used, that isn’t likely.

Is this going to be a story involving bullying? Almost certainly. As inferred, a book doesn’t start on this with no good reason. Either there’s something to be dealt with immediately or, if you start to consider the story, a young boy in a war, something in the future, or at least sometime during the book.

In Conclusion

I think what caught my attention most whilst I was looking at these lines was Sherry Thomas’ beginning for her romance book – it doesn’t tell you where you are as some books do but it does tell you what you can expect the conflict in the book to be about, and I found that interesting. In any other genre it might be considered a spoiler – the remainder of the chapter lays out exactly how Felix feels about other people based on the treatment of this parents – but here it’s provided freely. Romance is often termed predictable – the reader is generally looking for a happy ending but for there to be a book there has to be conflict beforehand – and so there’s not really any harm in telling you upfront in this way. But it is different.

Hot on the heels of that was Peake’s first sentence – also somewhere in the realm of letting you know what will happen, but an example of the more ambiguous usage of the device. Particularly given our modern day retort that words can indeed hurt.

In reading these first lines I’m starting to sense a trend – the relative succinctness in today’s literature is apparent in general and is something most people know about, but the changes in terms of introductions are less so. It’s been an interesting journey so far – there is more to close reading the more you do it.

What is the first line of the book you are currently reading and how does it relate to the rest of the text?



February 26, 2018, 6:56 pm

The first lines of a book can make or break it for me – at least when browsing in a book store.

I’ve just completed The Beacon at Alexandra by Gillian Bradshaw and the opening sentence is quite short: “The bird had died.” Even so, it sets the stage for what is coming, knowing that the main character desires to learn the healing arts.

Lisbeth @ The Content Reader

February 27, 2018, 12:30 pm

Great first lines. I love when they are saying something of the book, with a very few words. I just finished “Brontë in Love” by Sarah Freeman, and the line is: “Charlotte Brontë desperately wanted to believe that brains were more important than beauty.” Love that first line.