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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?



September 7, 2016, 2:03 pm

I love the first paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And I love the first sentence of Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, which is: “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.”


September 7, 2016, 11:12 pm

The Jemma Wayne first sentence is certainly evocative. I tried doing a similar kind of exercise to yours last year but none of the books i pulled out had particularly strong opening lines!


September 13, 2016, 7:31 pm

Jeanne: I love that one! The title of the book, too. I’ve seen Hitchiker’s, the film, but not read his work. I’ll be putting it on my list.

Bookertalk: Give it another go with others! To be honest, I don’t think a lot of these are as strong as those in my last post, but you can usually find something. Or discuss why they don’t work, which could be just as interesting.



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