Novelists are often advised to write a killer first line, a hook so powerful it'll drag the reader by the throat into the rest of the book. It's the old adage of making a good first impression, this time in literary form. Here's Stephen King's opinion on the subject: 'An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.' Hard to argue with that! As part of the 'Five' series, in this week's post I'm examining five great opening sentences from novels.
1. The Crow Road - Ian Banks (1992)
'It was the day my grandmother exploded.' Wow, what a kicker first line! Followed by: 'I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.' Not bad for a second line, either!
The rest of the book doesn't disappoint. I have a love/hate relationship with Iain Banks's novels, having loathed 'The Wasp Factory', been ambivalent about 'Stonemouth', and awed by 'The Crow Road'. The latter is the story of Prentice McHoan, who seeks answers about the disappearance of his uncle eight years ago.
The Crow Road is the name of the book Prentice's uncle, Rory, was writing when he vanished, and is also a metaphor for death. Along the way Prentice questions the existence of God and the afterlife, fuelled by sex, drink, and illegal substances. It's a great read!
2. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
'I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.' Well, that's intriguing! Right from the start, we're made aware that 'Middlesex' is a story of intergender life, if the title didn't make it obvious. But why did the protagonist's second birth take place in an emergency room? Jeffrey Eugenides's clever opening salvo makes me keen to discover more....
'Middlesex' is the story of Calliope Stephanides and her strange family secret. Calliope later becomes Cal, the narrator of the novel. He/she is an intersex individual raised as a girl, but who, hormonally speaking, is male. Growing up in 1970s Michigan, Cal/Calliope's story is set against a background detailing the experiences of Greek immigrants in the United States, and the fortunes of Detroit. 'Middlesex' won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book was also shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Dublin Literary Award.
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell (1949)
'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.' Regular readers of my blog will already know the high regard in which I hold this novel, ever since its story of dystopian tyranny stunned me when I read it as a teenager. And what a great opening line! Who wouldn't read that last word and think 'huh?'
From the start, Orwell makes us aware we're entering a strange and disturbing world, one that's familiar and at the same time different. A world in which the calendar months haven't changed, but the way we tell time has. We're all conversant with the twenty-four hour clock, yet the way Orwell uses it grabs our attention. By a simple word trick, he sets the scene for life on Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain. A world in which, to quote from the book, 'who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past'. Enter Winston Smith, whose job it is to rewrite the past, despite inwardly rebelling against life in totalitarian Britain.'1984' is a grim read in places, especially the interrogation scenes, but it's deservedly a classic.
4. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (1963)
'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.' In one sentence, Plath sets the scene: it's summer, it's 1953, our protagonist is in New York, and we already know she's confused.
'The Bell Jar' is not an easy read, being partly based on Plath's own experiences with mental illness. It's the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman who wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine. At first, she's delighted, believing she'll finally achieve her dream of becoming a writer. The fast pace of New York only serves to frighten her, though, and she has no idea what to do with her life. The only alternatives appear to be motherhood or a job as a stenographer, neither of which appeal. Gradually, Esther's life slides out of control. She spirals into depression, the bell jar of the book's title being a metaphor for her mental prison.
'The Bell Jar', Sylvia Plath's only novel, was originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath committed suicide shortly after the book's UK publication.
5. Earthly Powers - Anthony Burgess (1980)
'It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.' So much information wrapped up in one sentence! What strikes me the most is the word 'catamite', a word we seldom hear nowadays, meaning it's immediately attention grabbing. Then there's the fact our protagonist tells us he's eighty-one. Ageism is alive and well in our society; many people write off the elderly as being past sex, but this one clearly isn't. Throw religion into the mix in the shape of the visiting archbishop, and Burgess gives us a masterly opening to his novel.
'Earthly Powers' tells the story of Kenneth Toomey, a novelist who embarks on writing his memoirs. Toomey is also asked by the Archbishop of Malta to help with the canonisation of Carlo Campanati. Campanati uses his guile to rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church; Burgess uses him to illustrate the lust for power and what men will do to attain it. Power, sex and religion - the stage is set for a great read!
Do you have any favourite opening lines from novels?
Leave a comment and let me know!
Three stories woven into one
Nobody tells a story quite like Stephen King, who has rated 'Lisey's Story' (2006) his favourite novel that he's written. Before I discovered it on the library shelves, however, I'd not heard of it. No-one has yet made it into a film, and it doesn't seem as well known as other King novels such as 'Carrie', 'The Shining', etc. The novel delivers a powerful and engaging read, however, and is a typical Stephen King page-turner (all 664 of them - it's a long novel!) The plot involves three stories. One is that of Lisey herself, told in the present, interwoven with a second one, revealing her dead husband's life, as recalled by her. The third story is the one from the title, written by Scott for his wife. More about that later. Here's a brief plot summary.
Lisey Landon has been widowed for two years, following the sudden death of her husband, hugely successful Maine novelist Scott Landon. Although a devoted husband, Scott was a troubled man during his life, emotionally wrecked by his childhood and prone to drinking bouts. Despite the passing of time, Lisey is still unable to deal with his loss, as evidenced by her inability to clear out his study. Then an insane fan of Scott's begins to stalk her, demanding she hand over her dead husband's papers; in order to survive, Lisey has to follow the trail of clues left by her husband, who assists her in spirit form. Through Scott and Lisey we explore the fantastical world known as Boo'ya Moon, where Scott retreats during times of mental crisis. Boo'ya Moon is a magical realm of warmth, filled with hazy red light, birdsong and the scent of tropical flowers. Dangers lurk amongst the lush vegetation and bright colours, however. Monsters such as Scott's nemesis, the terrible piebald creature he dubs his 'long boy'. This 'long boy' appears to represent total insanity, something desperately feared by Scott, given his family history of mental illness. Despite its perils, however, it is Boo'ya Moon that eventually provides solutions to Lisey, in respect of her insane stalker and her grief over her husband's death.
A novel of contrasts and dualities
For me, the novel is one laden with dualities. The plot portrays many contrasts; good and evil, dark and light, night and day, safe and dangerous, madness and sanity. As for night and day, the difference between them plays an important role in Scott and Lisey's visits to Boo'ya Moon, a place that's safe during daylight hours, but in which unspeakable terrors lurk in the Fairy Forest at night. King stresses that Boo'ya Moon is not a place in which to linger too long; its beauty can be seductive and once enticed into its magic, its guests may lose all desire to leave, despite its perils. Another duality illustrated here; that of danger and safety.
Good and evil are demonstrated in Sparky Landon, Scott's father, a man tormented by what Scott terms 'bad-gunky', yet who, in his lucid moments, loves his two sons and endeavours to protect them during their childhood from the rampant family insanity. He doesn't entirely succeed; nobody could endure what Scott did and emerge mentally unscathed. Scott Landon comes from a family blighted by mental illness, which manifests itself as either the 'bad-gunky' of homicidal mania (Scott's brother and father) or as catatonia (Scott himself). Although a loving husband, the man is a dark, haunted individual in comparison with Lisey, who exudes strength and stability. Normally loquacious, Scott suffers bouts of catatonia, as does Lisey's sister, Amanda. The theme of family presents another duality, with Lisey's chaotic yet loving childhood, mostly female, a contrast to Scott's male-dominated and terror-filled one.
What does it mean to be a novelist? 'Lisey's Story' as metafiction
Let's turn now to another theme that's prevalent in the novel. 'Lisey's Story' is partly an examination of the craft of writing and what it means to be a author. King achieves some of this on a very practical level. Through Lisey and the descriptions of Scott's life, we get to see how a successful novelist works his craft, from the way his study is set up to the descriptions of his public speaking events. On a different level, King also offers one possible answer to the question all novelists get asked - 'where do you get your ideas from?' Scott Landon compares the mythical pool in Boo'ya Moon to a 'word pool' and credits it as the source of his creativity. Interesting, as the pool also has magical healing qualities. Does King mean that writing can be cathartic, a balm to minds in crisis? Possibly.
Then there's Boo'ya Moon itself. I interpret this magical realm as representing Scott's mental illness, or to be specific, the state of catatonia. Scott and Amanda are both catatonics who flee to Boo'ya Moon during mental breakdowns; both find peace and healing in this magical world. Is King saying that the source of creativity lies in madness? Or in a retreat from the realities of everyday life? Perhaps. Writing can spring from madness, but it can also present a catharsis for insanity. Another interesting duality!
Is the title of 'Lisey's Story' a misnomer?
A minor quibble now. For me, the title of the novel is something of a misnomer. The novel is far more concerned about Scott Landon's life rather than Lisey's; she plays a supporting role in her own story. Although we are given details of Lisey's life, throughout the book we discover much more about her husband's. Even when we finally read the story that Scott wrote for Lisey and hid for her in Boo'ya Moon, the 'Lisey's Story' of the title, we learn far more about him than we do his wife, as the missing pieces of his life slot into place. That aside, 'Lisey's Story' is a terrific fairground ride of a novel, told as only Stephen King can. Like many King offerings, it's densely plotted and, although long, it's never dull. From the stunning descriptions of Boo'ya Moon to those of Scott and Lisey's marriage, through the sub-plots of Amanda's mental illness and Lisey's stalking by the insane Jim Dooley, King sweeps us along in a epic story that enchants and intrigues. I heartily recommend this book.
Have you read 'Lisey's story'?
Did you love it or loathe it? What elements did you enjoy and why? Leave me a comment and let me know.
Here's the stunning cover for my next novel, 'Silent Winter'...
Isn't it gorgeous? 'Silent Winter' will be published on Thursday, December 5, 2019 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon in kindle format. The price will be just $0.99/£0.99 for the first week of sale before it rises to $3.99/$2.99. I'll be making the paperback version available for pre-order in November. Meanwhile, here's the link: Silent Winter, and here's what you can expect:
On an icy November night, Drew Blackmore is beaten unconscious, then abducted. He awakes to find himself in total darkness, naked and chained to the floor. Fed just enough to keep him alive, Drew is unable to identify his captor, or the reason for his incarceration. As reality fades, hallucinations take over. Can Drew escape his prison before madness claims him?
Meanwhile Drew's wife, Holly, despairing of ever seeing him again, turns to his brother for comfort. As the worst winter in decades sweeps the UK, she learns of Drew's tragic past. Could his disappearance be connected with that of a prostitute years before?
A story of how the mind responds to solitary confinement, 'Silent Winter' examines one man's desperate attempt to survive the unthinkable.