I like to take my time with opening lines.
I open a new book slowly, read over the first sentence or two, pause and read them again, savouring the unique flavour of the writing and reflecting on how these first words will foreshow what is to come before finally settling in for the long read.
I recently read The Painter by Peter Heller, which has an excellent and portentous opening: “I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.” The short sentences imply a directness, a frankness, a simple honesty. We know that the narrator has been separated from what he loves, has experienced turmoil and is in trouble. The juxtaposition of life, family and nature strikes at the heart of our frail human existence, and compels us to read deeper into the mystery.
This fascination with opening lines is nothing new for me (and I’m sure I’m not alone). The opening lines of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are have been imprinted in my mind since my earliest experience with books: “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.” The lines set the stage for the child’s psychological journey into exclusion, rage, loneliness and, finally, reconciliation, a journey we have all made at various points in our lives.
I liked these lines so much, I named our son Max, partly in tribute to this wonderful book.
Jose Saramago, a favourite writer of mine, is brilliant at opening lines: “Strange though it may seem to anyone unaware of the importance of the marital bed in the efficient workings of public administration, regardless of whether that bed has been blessed by church or state or no one at all, the first step of an elephant’s journey to austria, which we propose to describe hereafter, took place in the royal apartments of the portuguese court, more or less at bedtime.” (The Elephant’s Journey) Wordy, humorous in a certain detached way, egalitarian, wise in his observations, deeply familiar with his national culture and history, this opening both encapsulates Saramago’s unique writing style and contains the seeds of the story to come.
I think of the opening lines as containing the book’s DNA, the unique code that identifies and differentiates this work from that work, this writer from that — not unlike the first strains of a symphony, or the first sip of a fine wine (though I prefer beer). Or you might say they are like the first cut when building a piece of furniture, with every subsequent cut planned out already, and each cut being unique to that particular design.
If I ever get around to writing a book myself, I figure I will spend the first year or two on the first sentence, and everything else will flow pretty easily from that.
What are your favourite opening lines? Check out our Facebook page, and look for the post entitled Opening Lines to share your favourites.
Aaron Francis is the chief librarian at Creston Valley Public Library. He is currently reading The Hired Man by Aminatta Forma.