Kiran Dass delves into the year's new releases to find the best opening lines, the ones that lure readers of a book onwards
"Begin anywhere …" goes the quote from American composer John Cage. For artists and writers, not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. The first line of a novel has got to count. How long do you give a book before you decide to stick with it or abandon it? As a bookseller, I hear many different opinions from readers. Some people say they read an exact 100 pages before they decide to commit to reading further. For some it's the first chapter. I've even heard people say they generously (or, preposterously, in my opinion) read two-thirds of a book before they make up their mind.
I'm more ruthless. I give it one page at most. Or more specifically, perhaps, one sentence. That opening sentence of a novel has got to hook me in. It's got to grab me by the scruff of the neck and convince me to read on. My to-be-read book stack literally grows taller every day, so I don't have time to muck around.
For some books, an iconic opening sentence is its most memorable feature. They set a mood and draw you in. It's not an easy task for a writer. A strong opening line can have a great impact, but it shouldn't be too flashy or try-hard. Some of my all-time-favourites are:
Graham Greene's Brighton Rock: "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him." What an opening!
And closer to home, consider the arresting opening line from New Zealand's The Scarecrow, by Ronald Hugh Morrieson: "The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut."
Or how about the existential absurdity of the first line of the iconic novel The Outsider, by Albert Camus? "Mother died today, or maybe yesterday, I don't know."
There have been some cracker opening lines in books this year. Here are some that command the reader to stick with the book:
"I was a girl once, but not anymore."
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So begins narrator Maryam in this punch-in-the-guts novel. The blunt, direct nature of this opener prepares us to learn what has happened to Maryam. Abducted along with her classmates by Nigerian jihadis in an unnamed location, we learn before too long this is north-eastern Nigeria. Married into Boko Haram, Maryam gives birth to a daughter, Babi. Maryam escapes the militant compound with Babi and, for part of their journey, they are joined by Buki, another of the abducted girls. This is brutal but also beautiifully written and filled with hope. Girl will rip your heart out, but right from that opening line, you won't be able to put it down.
This is the best book I have read all year. The writer Deborah Levy says it is "one of the best books you will ever read" - and I'm not about to argue with her. It's an exhilarating book and the reader gets a strong sense of this being a wild ride immediately:
"All the images will disappear: the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, after the war, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the cafe the tearful face of Alida Valli as she danced with Georges Wilson in the film The Long Absence
the man passed on the pavement in Padua in the summer of 1990, his hands fused with his shoulders, instantly summoning the memory of thalidomide, prescribed to pregnant women for nausea thirty years before, and of a joke people told later;"
And on this unconventionally extended opening line goes. You read it breathlessly, not realising that the first full stop actually only appears after four pages. It's a thrilling and majestic read.
The Years is a radical approach to the memoir. It's where autofiction, biography and sociology intersect. Written by French author Annie Ernaux, it's her memoir but is actually a collective biography. It spans her entire life, beginning in Normandy 1940 when she was born and through the decades up to 2006. She calls it a compilation of abbreviated memories. It's told in the third person, there's no "I" or "we". She records her personal experience against the backdrop of wider social and cultural change and we sweep through historical events as she remembers them so it's historical events as markers. It is the story of all of us.
Mostly Dead Things
"How we slice the skin: Carefully, that's a given. Cutting with precision sounds like the same thing but it's not."
This is beguiling. What surgical detail could our narrator be referring to? This is a novel set in central Florida about Jessa-Lynn Martin, who walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has died by suicide on one of the metal procedure tables in the workshop. Her father leaves the failing family business to Jessa, who then has to contend with keeping it running while juggling a completely bonkers family. Once we're in, we realise this is a very warm and darkly funny novel about messy families, relationships, affairs, art, life and death in Florida.
The Nickel Boys
"Even in death the boys were trouble."
This short and snappy line reflects the beautifully elegant sparseness of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys. Inspired by reports of abuse at the real-life Dozier School for boys, a now-closed-down reformatory school in Florida. Following the optimistic Elwood Curtis, a young African-American student and his bad seed friend Turner, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the Nickel Academy, a harsh reform school and deftly explores racism and the brutality of an unjust system
Elwood idolises Martin Luther King jnr. By an unfortunate case of bad timing and luck, Elwood finds himself in the brutal Nickel Academy but is determined to hold on to King's quote, "Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you." But Elwood's fellow inmate Turner thinks Elwood is soft and that the only appropriate reaction for survival is to match the same barbaric cruelty of their oppressors. The fallout of the duo's actions explains the significance of the opening line with devastating effects.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
"I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night."
This perfectly sets the tone of our wonderfully oddball narrator Janina Duszejko, an eccentric retired bridge engineer in her 60s. She is a firm follower of astrological charts and is concerned about the mystery of the disappearance of her two dogs.
Set in a remote rural Polish village, members of the local hunting club are found murdered and Janina finds herself implicated in the investigation. The kooky opening line reflects this difficult-to-define and offbeat comic mystery novel with strong feminist and political leaning. This year Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. And never mind the opening line, what about this book's knockout title?