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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.

Book cover

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.

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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.

 
Analyses Of First Lines #5

I’ve found myself becoming incredibly picky. I started composing this post quite a few weeks ago but didn’t complete it because I didn’t have enough first lines to make it worthwhile – there were many I could choose from within the limits I set myself for this series (books that are currently in my reading life whether already read and being looked at again, in progress, or recently finished) but none struck a chord. Sometimes it was because working out exactly what the first line was could be tricky, with books sporting those sort of prologue pages that might not actually be prologue pages, and others that just didn’t intrigue in any way. Usually this sort of pickiness takes a while – my thoughts on referencing… eight years late – but in this case it’s only taken 5 posts. I suppose I’m getting used to thinking about what I want to do earlier rather than later.

Looking at what I’ve got below, I’ve noticed it’s full of doom, gloom, and hospitals, so I apologise if you’re reading this when you’ve a spring in your step. My reading hasn’t been all angst, I guess it’s just that the books that include it think more about their first lines. There may be something in that.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

The attendants came for him as a pair, as always.

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He’s been there a long time, and he’s a big problem if two people are needed. We can estimate length of time but the amount of difficulty he’s causing really depends on what this is about. If historical there are a few possibilities – a simple thing of two people arriving; they may need to lift him head and foot; he may be causing them a lot of issues whether truly or in that depraved asylum fashion. If contemporary, it’s most likely to be a necessary thing but hopefully practiced with the comfort of the patient in mind in the context of a much better idea of what he is suffering from. It could be a hospital or a prison, a care home or in-home care, perhaps. Of course the cover gives you a hint as to what time we’re talking about, but on its own the line could be set in any time.

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

They must think I don’t have long left, because today they allow the vicar in.

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Surprising open, everything is set up, and there’s something quite literary about the way this is a short sentence – the end is possibly near, and so there is little to say on that exact front. Looking at ‘they’, either ‘they’ are wrong and this will be a story in which the narrator gets better, or we’re going to be looking at the past.

The Theatre Of Dreams by Rosie Travers

I met the man who orchestrated my downfall in a Soho nightclub.

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The use of alliteration, and ‘orchestrated’ when another might use a different word – the start of this story, if not the whole, is going to have quite a lot of drama in it and not necessarily anything involving acting. The use of ‘Soho’ alone, without ‘nightclub’, sets the scene: a downfall – which may well have happened in London if the narrator is there to go clubbing – and the likelihood of their residence there, points to the title – fame.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

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I love this line. I completely looked it over when I first read it, because nothing particularly jumps out at you during a regular read unless the Rosenbergs are a new story to you. But this line is absolutely perfect – everything is provided. You’ve got the season, mood, exact time and year, place, and even the state of mind, shown by what she chooses to focus on. You’ve also got repetition there to draw the reader to the sunny days, and the use of ‘queer’ (as a synonym for ‘odd’), and the way Plath chooses to highlight an electrocution, says straight away that the book may be a strange and/or difficult one. Of course difficult is what The Bell Jar is, but Plath’s bluntness, warning, lets you know straight away what you need to know if you’re just flicking through books and looking for something to read – unlike many books that take a while to show what they are about, Plath’s is immediate. And you’ve got to be thankful for that – her tale is morbid, dark, but she’s giving you an out if you wish to take it.

Whistle In The Dark by Emma Healey

‘This has been the worst week of my life,’ Jen said.

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Interesting is the chapter heading, ‘the end’ – are we going to be reading the book back to front? And with this first line Healey shows us we’re going to look into the near past, and something that has been bad or gone wrong. Whether or not ‘of my life’ is dramatising things is something we don’t yet know, and we don’t yet know. We also don’t know how old the person is and thus whether or not it is indeed likely to be dramatic or not.

Missing Pieces by Laura Pearson

The coffin was too small.

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This is rather like the flash fiction piece, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”1 – Pearson sets a very similar scene. Though what is left out that the famous fiction piece included is a reference to time; we don’t yet know how long the child lived for, and thus we don’t know how much, if any, pages moving forward will include references to a life lived. The title of this book and certainly the cover give an idea as to what the book is about, but if you were in any doubt, there’s the first line.

Reading these through again I think there’s definitely something to be said about darker books more often (potentially more often?) having strong first lines. I suppose that when you’re writing about a difficult subject in long form and wanting to get details across to the reader, it’s second nature to start as you mean to go on.

Then there is the fact that sometimes it takes a few lines for the stage to be set, and often these are short sentences where you look at a first line like Christina Stead’s – ‘One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled 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.’ – and wonder if they couldn’t have just created a long sentence, no matter how old-fashioned they seem to now be considered. But then of course short sentences have merits of their own.

With The Bell Jar soon to be behind me I’m thinking again of the idea of close reading ending lines. I think I’d want to retrace my steps and include the books that I’d used in these first lines posts. I’ll have to ponder that undertaking for a bit!

Footnotes

1 I was intrigued to discover that this six-word story is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although there is no hard evidence to suggest it was his. O’Toole (2013) says, ‘a literary agent named Peter Miller stated that he was told the anecdote about Hemingway and baby shoes by a “well-established newspaper syndicator” circa 1974.’ He quotes Miller’s book: ‘Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was lunching at Luchow’s with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end!’ (Miller 1991, p.27, cited in O’Toole 2013)

But O’Toole also cites other variations on the tale, other potential writers. Miller’s anecdote is unsubstantiated. (I think it’s also worth noting that the time scale between Hemingway’s supposed claim and his completing it, sounds incredibly far-fetched unless he had already prepared the story in advance. This surely suggests he’d seen the story elsewhere.) His article, linked to below, is worth a read.

Online References

O’Toole, Garson (2013) For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn, Quote Investigator, accessed 7th September 2018.

 
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?

 
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

 
Analyses Of First Lines #2

I was reading Jemma Wayne’s latest, marvelling at the first paragraph. I wanted to study it, to tweet it, though I knew that was impossible. Then I remembered I’d previously written a post regarding first lines and the response had been positive.

I rounded up all books currently in my midst – current reads, books just finished, books I’d been circling in that ‘I want to read this but it scares me’ manner – and got to work. This post’s shorter than the previous, which I’m hoping is more a reflection of prior experience doing rather than a lack of imagination. Please excuse the wonky placement of the book covers.

Let’s start with the book that got me thinking. Here’s the first line of Chains Of Sand:

The house is on top of me.

Book cover

I love this. It’s original and could mean a number of things. There’s the literal idea – apocalyptic novel? The figurative – is it a heavy weight, a sense of burden, a return to an abusive situation? Or is it the more mundane – the house sits on a hill and I’m in it? I have to break away from convention and look at the next lines:

Under me. Around me. Darkness is everywhere. Like a coffin. I am not scared. I am used to darkness. In Gaza, when blackouts come as often as they do, you have to get used to it.

So it’s all of those meanings – literal, figurative, mundane. The mundane is true but there’s a foreboding heaviness, a real, true, burden, and then there’s the setting. Gaza. Blackout. It’s a powerful beginning. It sometimes seems to me the importance of the first line has changed, that it’s now the first page that’s important; Wayne has stuck to tradition. That first line sucks you in, you want to know what’s going on, and she rewards you for continuing. Even if it’s an instant reward the pay-off is such that you want to keep turning the pages.

The next book shares the house and hiding idea but it’s very different in every other way. Here’s the opening of Rachel Elliot’s Whispers Through A Megaphone:

Miriam Delaney sits at her kitchen table and watches the radio.

Book cover

Now this doesn’t seem too interesting. It sets the scene somewhat but isn’t compelling because you can’t tell it’s relevant. Is Miriam listening to war news, is she old, is this the set-up to the plot? As it turns out, the everyday nature is very relevant as is the usage of ‘watches’ rather than ‘listens’, but it’s only over the next few pages that it becomes clear we’re reading about an agoraphobic. What we do get from it is a name, and that Miriam’s surname is included suggests it’s going to be a style Elliot uses. There may be many Delaneys.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland would find Miriam very dull:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Book cover

We know how it goes so it’s hard to say how much we’re truly assuming and how much is deeply ingrained within us, but is it fair to say we can assume from this line that this will be a story about a great experience (if not an adventure)? If a book starts with an assertion of boredom then we know said boredom is about to disappear. And this Alice is trying to become interested in her sister’s book but it’s just not happening – this may not be a book about a book lover, not because Alice doesn’t like reading but because it appears there are no fun books in the vicinity. If we look at Alice’s statement we realise the book her sister is reading is likely a bog standard chapter book – no pictures or conversations, though ‘conversations’ is up for debate, admittedly. From this we can assume the sister is older or mature for her age, and Alice is stuck, bored, sitting beside her. We can therefore guess Alice’s relative age and in this context her opinion of chapter books makes sense – who liked the idea of chapter books at a young age? She’s bored, tired of it all, likely she’s about to try and run off or suggest doing something else. Whatever it is, something is about to happen.

We get so much from this one line, even if it does go on. (In my edition it constitutes the entire first page along with a drawing of the white rabbit. This may well be a construction – is every edition’s first page set up like that? And should we be looking into the image at the same time as the first line? If so, then we know it’s going to be a fantasy, bizarre, and that something is going to happen involving a rabbit with a pocket watch.)

Speaking of adventures, here’s Dan Richards’ Climbing Days:

I wake early and set out into the shining day with the sun still low behind Pen yr ole wen – Head of the White Slope – which looks a perfect pyramid from the hostel door, a child’s drawing of a mountain.

Book cover

Richards does a fair few things in his first line: he sets the time of day, the starting location, the intention of the chapter. He includes a visual description of the mountain – ‘a child’s drawing’ – and some alliteration. There’s a translation and the sense that he doesn’t live nearby. It may be a long sentence but it makes reference to a lot of the suggested contents, history aside. You’re going to get description, nice writing, a personal journey, a good wad of information.

We return to houses for Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana:

I first saw the house in the summer of my fifth birthday.

Book cover

A book with a house – does this line make you think of Rebecca as it does me? The person starts the same way as Du Maurier’s unnamed heroine, talking about a house in the past tense. We can assume the house will play a big role in the story and it’s likely Kearsley will continue detailing it from here-on in – the house has been in the character’s life since early childhood.

If you’re looking for an epic, you could do worse than Tahmima Anam’s The Bones Of Grace:

I saw you today, Elijah.

Book cover

This is to do with some sort of regret or longing, it must be. The sighting happened today and that ‘today’ suggests it doesn’t happen much. Consider how different it would have been with quotation marks – a dialogue, a quick sighting of someone known in the present. Can we infer from the line that we’re going to be in for the long haul? A potentially long memory session? The book is written in the form of a letter – is this apparent, too? It’s going to be a slow piece of writing, that’s for sure.

Lastly, here’s Sara Taylor’s The Lauras:

I could hear them arguing, the way they argued nearly every night now, their voices pitched low and rasping in that way that meant they thought they were being too quiet to wake me up.

Book cover

This arguing has been happening for some time. The parents are at odds, perhaps on the brink of divorce or separation, but they don’t want their child to have to hear it. We could say they perhaps believe strongly that children should not be put in the middle. But this character, who we can guess is quite young, knows a lot about it anyway. We’re thrown right into the story, into the commotion. Taylor’s not waiting around.

We get a sense of the author’s writing style; we can tell she’s descriptive – ‘pitched low and rasping’ – and favours a steady, slow, pace.

There’s something wonderful, involving, about looking at text in this detail. There’s so much to take and it’s a reasonable idea – I often think it’d be nice to do it more often, for extended sections of books, but that would be too much, best left to literature classes. It’s another way to interact with a book, to spend more quality time over it, to keep it in mind longer than the average read-review-done process takes.

Which first lines have wowed you lately?

 

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