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Analyses Of First Lines #7

Five years ago I wrote about not being able to truly engage with a book until a couple of pages in. Back then I attributed it to both excitement and being overwhelmed but now I can say that whilst overwhelm is always present for some reason – a lengthy book, a highly-rated author – excitement isn’t always a factor. I can, now, also say that it’s less of a problem with ebooks. Reading an ebook, whilst you have page numbers available, you haven’t that stack of pages on the right hand side, and you can’t feel the heaviness that a stack of pages creates. I think the overwhelm is also trepidation, most often to do with an author you’ve not read before. ‘What am I getting into and will it be fun?’ This has been a factor in my reading of Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place. It took four pages, then I noticed the writing, the attention to making the American character read as American, and the overall atmosphere of the book. I knew that O’Farrell is a favourite of many. But I hadn’t known why.

The book inspired this edition of my close reading series. It’s actually my third attempt at reading it, spanning almost a year, but with good reason – a reader who unfortunately still needs a fair bit of quiet, my attempts to read at the library, once when waiting for others and a second time during a busy period, meant that I took very little in. I had considered moving on but I was drawn a third time; this time I borrowed it and the third time, complete with a different environment proved to be the charm.

Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place (2016)

There is a man.

Book cover

O’Farrell begins on the page with a name, location, and year (Daniel, Donegal, 2010); the first line follows. So, in effect, her first sentence is bolstered by extra information. But many authors do this – it’s used to tell you where you are, and with whom, most often when there is more than one narrator or focus character. A regular first name, a place in Ireland, and the year – six years before publication – simply gives you a briefing for what you’ll find out very soon.

Read without any context, the first line is still useful. In fact it’s fantastic. Are we reading first or third person? Maybe it’s second. We’ve only four words to go on and a full stop that is objectively very normal but subjectively, here, almost a word in itself. There is a man… and nothing else. There’s a man – cool? There’s a man – so what, men make up roughly half of humanity. But what is definite is the ominous tone, a tone that says there could be something to worry about here, four words and a full stop alone on a line.

Leaving the vacuum and considering the stage setting, if the man is Daniel then O’Farrell is narrating in that particular manner perhaps best known as a children’s literature device, description written in a specific, immersive, way. If it’s not Daniel, then Daniel is probably telling a story.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming (2018)

Preface: When I was a kid, my aspirations were simple.
Chapter One: I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.

Book cover

I’ve included both first lines in this case as it’s hard to decide exactly which ‘should’ be the absolute first. I’ve also included them because there is a highly literary aspect joining them: the preface sentence makes a statement and – though perhaps this is subjective, certainly it’s less definite – Chapter One’s sentence back that statement up. This was no accident. Moreover, both sentences set up who Obama is and was, and it also gives you a good idea of what her book will be about beyond her time as First Lady. (This is likely going to be more the case if you’re not American.) Chapter One’s sentence puts Obama in the position of hard worker, which you would have expected already, but the Preface’s sentence suggests in addition (though coming first) that her path to the White House still surprises to her. At the same time, the construction of the Preface’s sentence, with that pause after ‘when I was a kid’, allows you to assume change – she may well have evolved her aspirations as she got older.

It’s no surprise the book opens with a strong statement, but the detail involved… I wouldn’t mind analysing a few more snippets from this book because when read in a regular fashion the whole extent of the nuance is missed, as it can be in any book. Is it perhaps better in audiobook form, with Obama reading? That’s likely.

Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Heir Of Redclyffe (1853)

The drawing-room of Hollywell House was one of the favoured apartments, where a peculiar air of home seems to reside, whether seen in the middle of summer, all its large windows open to the garden, or, as when our story commences, its bright fire and stands of fragrant greenhouse plants contrasted with the wintry fog and leafless trees of November.

Book cover

Very much of its time, this lengthy sentence provides both more and not enough information; there is nothing to tell us what the book is about beyond the class status of a/some characters and the season. It tells us of the House, which may be the main setting, and the characters’ love of the drawing room. The sentence sets a scene but it’s scenic rather than functional, all description; it works in the context of the easy-going lengthy books of the period.

Anne Melville’s The Daughter Of Hardie (1988)

On a day of Indian summer in 1898 Richard Beverley, Marquess of Ross, travelled to Oxford to see his great-grandchildren for the first and last time.

Book cover

In terms of details, everything is here, including a glimpse of the social standing likely in play. There’s a note on the domestic situation – whilst this book is a sequel and thus you probably know about the family already, the fact it’s children rather than child suggests the Marquess waited a while to see them. Readers of book one know the answer. New readers don’t but could make a good guess.

The use of ‘Indian summer’ is interesting: it doesn’t appear to have a ‘proper’ reason for being there, but can we presume a use of pathetic fallacy, despite the Marquess’ noted demise, that suggests something good to come?

Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends (2017)

Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together.

Book cover

In her usage of ‘we first met’, Rooney presents a possible conflict or thriller-esque point to be handled later in the form of the consequences of meeting Melissa, but the main takeaway here is that the author provides us with a who, what, where, and a specific ‘where’ at that. That it’s a poetry night performance – most often small and local if my experience is anything to go by – suggests that this book is going to be a book about books or, if not, at the very least literary. Also of note is the use of ‘Bobbi and I’, grammar that has fallen out of favour as incorrect. It could simply be how Rooney talks – certainly the mainstream shift is recent – or it could be an illustration of the way the narrator speaks.

We have a Bobbi, who the narrator knows, and a Melissa, but we’re yet to know who is talking.

Conclusion

Often there is a link, however small, between the books I’ve selected for these posts, but this time there isn’t. (I select books that are in my sphere at the time so any similarities are just a reflection of what I might by studying.) Beyond the fact that two are set in the 1800s (one contemporary, one historical) and that two are award winners, there is nothing to really compare. What does stand out, purely from the vast difference in dates between the Yonge and the others, is the fact that preferences and trends for first lines have changed and evolved – but we knew that anyway. I think there is a lot to be argued in favour of the way first lines were written in decades past but Yonge’s example here is an argument against them; it’s got that easy-going atmosphere, as said above, but it lacks further points of interest.

What these books have done, particularly the first two, is make me even more interested in looking at other lines; I’ve considered end lines (I’d like to go through the books for which I’ve studied first lines and look at how they end so long as the ends are not spoilers) but I’m also starting to like the idea of the middle lines or lines from a certain page number. But it could be the most tedious thing ever. It needs more thought.

What lines from recent reads have stayed with you?

 
 

Kelly

September 5, 2019, 8:30 pm

I’ve never really considered end lines. I’ll have to be more conscious of them in the future.

I’m currently reading The Godfather, a choice made by my book club. It’s a novel that I’m sure many would consider pulp fiction, but I’ve found quite a few lines in it worth remembering.

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