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Analyses Of First Lines #6

January has brought with it an interesting mix of older and new books. One such book is brand new – I received Sofie Laguna’s The Choke a few days ago, to some surprise. Together with the feeling of freshness, the new year has brought with it a renewed enthusiasm for new releases, and while I’m not going to make any promises in regards to this particular book, I will likely read and review it.

There is one book absent from this list that really should be on it as it’s a current read, but the line was dull and I’ve written enough about Eloisa James’ novels recently. It did however bring up an interesting question – when there are sentences before the narrative, such as those that set the scene, when or where exactly does a book begin?

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, dental hygienists – I tell them I work in an office.

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Like the entirety of the book, if I may be so bold as to bring my general opinion into this post, Honeyman’s first line is a feat of writing, providing not only background detail but personality, mood, and a sense of what will follow. Starting her book with a question put to the narrator by ‘people’, which the content within the dashes shows includes familiars and complete strangers, points to a likelihood of the narrator having a passive role in either his/her life or society in general. The use of ‘taxi drivers, dental hygienists’ implies that the narrator doesn’t have people close to them – we often use ‘people’, but rarely spell out who ‘people’ includes.

And so, with these named categories of people, we can assume that there may be a gap somewhere between this person and society – perhaps they don’t get on with others, or perhaps they’re very introverted. In this vein, the choice of categories is interesting, suggesting the person goes to medical appointments and perhaps nowhere else or very few other places; the taxi takes them to the dentist. They likely do not drive.

Why ‘an office’? Is the job too complex and the narrator became bored with trying to explain it? Are they embarrassed by their job? Or do they perhaps just not want to tell anyone or make conversation?

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I cast no shadow.

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The character may be a ghost, or perhaps a person who is rarely or never noticed; the sort of opinion given here in first-person echoes a child’s feelings – perhaps their family is dysfunctional. Other options include fantasy-type characters, thieves, or animals.

Looking past the pronoun, we see a situation of either promise of worry. While ‘cast’ can be past tense, it’s quite likely we’re looking at a situation happening at present – someone hiding from something or someone for a reason not yet revealed to us. It’s not the most informative of lines, but it sets the scene well enough.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna

Kirk turned his slingshot over in his hand.

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Continuing on the theme of likely young narrators, Laguna’s first line called to my mind To Kill A Mockingbird – there may not be a slingshot in the opening pages of Lee’s tale, but Laguna’s set up of a child about to be hurt, struck me as similar. Unlike Jem and his sport-related injury, however, here we have either a mischievous child or, more likely given the weapon, the beginnings of a scene of bullying. A bully who is taking his time, either simply drawing it out or about to start some cruel talk. It’s not going to be an easy page to read.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began – began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly – her mother Rupban felt an iron fist squeeze her belly.

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This first line sports names that give you an idea as to the possible locations for this book, however, prior to it, the location and date are included under the chapter heading, so we already know we’re in Pakistan, 1967. What the line does provide is a bit of the family culture we’re likely dealing with. Ali’s use of em dashes and the content between them, suggests that Nazneen may be on the ‘hook’ for something for a fair length of her childhood. (We already know Rupban’s labour was an hour and forty five minutes.) We’re looking at the prospect of some of the story dealing with elements of Nazneen’s future life that stem from her birth – perhaps a running joke or constantly retold anecdote she has to hear.

There’s another possible story element hinted at: Nazneen’s strength. The use of ‘iron fist’ could suggest strength of character.

White Truffles In Winter by N M Kelby

That last summer, the kitchen reeked of pickling spice, aniseed and juniper berries.

Book cover

Three foods, if we lump ‘spices’ into one for a moment and consider aniseed and juniper in their own right. Just what you want from a book that has food in its title. The use of ‘summer’ here, contrasted with the Winter of the title, suggests that winter may bring with it a big change. And the use of past tense and ‘last’, which is likely about a previous season rather than any finality, suggests winter will indeed be in the spotlight.

Whether or not Kelby means us to see the aniseed and juniper as the two ‘spices’ of the sentence, we have some strong smells and tastes here. I looked up the two together to see if Kelby was meaning us to read more into the combination – there’s a slight possibility of Scandinavia (a salmon dish that uses the two spices, amongst others) or alcohol, though the second is more of a guess. Wherever we are, we’re looking at a licorice-smelling kitchen – something quite a lot different to truffles!

Conclusion

As I started to put these first lines into an order I noticed a similarity; whilst the fact that three lines dealt with the likely subject of childhood, they all also had a potential in them regarding the role of the parent. A child who might be invisible; a child who might be bullied but might be experiencing abuse; a child whose parents may see them in a certain way. It’s interesting how comparisons can be drawn between the most unlikely stories; Elmet and The Choke do appear to be similar, at least in regards to what the blurbs say, but Brick Lane is mostly about an immigrant’s experience. I have a want, almost, to write something about all this, but it would be difficult to find the angle.

I note this ‘finding’ because it relates to something else I’m currently working on, a character study inspired by a conversation about another character, the context of each being vastly different and requiring comment. Similarities can come from the most unlikely of subjects, but sometimes it can be interesting to accept the strangeness, consider it, and continue.

 
 

Jeanne

January 24, 2019, 9:21 pm

Why “an office” for Eleanor Oliphant–it’s part of her character to paint anything about her life in very broad outlines. She doesn’t leave herself open for criticism, which means she also doesn’t reveal anything interesting, ever. At least at the beginning of the novel!

Charlie

January 25, 2019, 5:10 pm

Yep! But at the start, you don’t know that yet ;)

Jenny @ Reading the End

January 28, 2019, 2:06 am

I love this! What a cool post! I may steal this idea from you, if you don’t mind, and do a post with my recent reads’ first-lines.

Tracy Terry

January 28, 2019, 4:54 pm

Of the books you share I have Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine on my wish List And I know I have read Brick Lane. It just hasn’t left a lasting memory so I shall have to re-read the book journals I kept prior to my blog in the hope I’ve written my thoughts on it there.

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