The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Top Ten Tuesday - Great First Lines.

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week is a freebie week so I've gone with a top ten close to my heart. To my mind, you really cannot beat a good first line (except, possibly, with a good last line - a post on which is on its way). Those first few words can make the difference between a reader instantly discounting a book or being entirely entranced.  They can introduce characters, settings, location or place in time, drawing you into the story while you have still to truly begin.  There are many famous first lines – 1984, Moby Dick, Neuromancer (er, WOW)… but none of those ones are here.  Instead, I’ve collected a few of my own personal favourites:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

This is my favourite of all first lines.  Instantly, you know the situation.  Bunny is dead.  But who is Bunny?  Who are “we”?  Thus begins a story that winds its way around a group of university students through the eyes of newcomer, Richard. Entranced by their exclusive world of money, beauty and ancient Greek he soon finds himself drowning in their strange little world.  The Secret History is a compelling mystery – never losing the promise of its first line and also a fascinating character study and tale of friendship and loyalty gone strangely wrong.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.

And Hello, Todd. This first line so completely introduces you to the narrative voice of the book’s protagonist that he instantly has your attention. The local yokel dialect, lack of punctuation and double negative signify instantly that this book isn't going to be quite the norm. And it’s not. That’s because it is better.  Protagonist Todd is memorable for his stream of consciousness type narration, something that draws you inexorably into Ness’s strange world. Not only is the style mesmerising, but also clever in that you feel that you are in Todd’s head – or that his thoughts are in yours, something that ties vitally to the core storyline. Brilliant writing, brilliant characterisation – brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Read it.

Marley was dead: to begin with.

Dickens’ quintessentially festive tale follows the repentance of neighbourhood miser Ebenezer Scrooge, fuelled by the appearance of numerous spirits during the course of a freezing Christmas Eve night.  And, to this day, I am yet to find a more apt first line in literature.  Any mention of death in a Christmas story, let alone in the opening line, is surely going against the very essence of the Christmas saga yet Dickens uses this inclusion to set the tone for what is a truly unorthodox festive tale and to give the reader an ominous insight into what further bleak accounts lie ahead.  Make yourself comfortable readers, this isn’t going to be an easy ride. If you are looking for carol singers and mulled wine this isn’t going to be the tale for you, however, Dickens’ exquisitely written, seminal work explores the capacity for good and evil in all of us and reiterates the true values we should hold dear during the festive period.  And for those who haven’t read the original work, you have my word that it does justice to both the exceptional version starring Bill Murray and the unforgettable account by Michael Caine and the Muppets (Thank you, PolkaDot Steph for this excellent contribution).

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

What?  You didn't think I was going to miss it out... Rebecca is one of my top five favourite books and the first line does what all good first lines should do, it invites the reader to wonder.  What is Manderley? Why isn't she there anymore?  Why does it haunt her dreams? By the way, if you haven't read it, the answers to all of the above are chillingly awesome.

All children grow up, except one

I recently read Peter Pan and Wendy to my five year old daughter. She listened with eyes like saucers, entranced by the magic while I read, entranced by her, reminded constantly that there is only one child who will never grow old. It always surprises me how few people have read the original Peter Pan. Full of beauty, sly humour and an oddly adult sensibility it’s extremely beautiful to read. Yet despite the many gorgeous passages throughout the book this first line encompasses its contradictory nature better than any of the rest.  It is a line that is both sad and magical, poignant and filled with joy, haunting and curious – much like Peter himself.

It was the day my grandmother exploded. 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.

Honestly, who wouldn’t want to know the story behind this first line (ok, first two lines...)?  The Crow Road is a story of intrigue and murder wrapped up in a sprawling family saga.  Set exclusively in Scotland it is an enthralling tale, clever, moving and humorous   Iain Banks is a hugely prolific author, writing across genres from sci-fi to horror (his warped The Wasp Factory is a tour de force, if not one for the faint hearted) and The Crow Road showcases his style perfectly.  And, almost unbelievably  the whole thing really is as good as those opening lines.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife

I am pretty sure that were I to go through my Neil Gaiman collection, I could fill this post with only his first lines.  But this one is my favourite. It’s simple, striking and instantly demands answers. It’s also a beautifully small start. Just a hand, in the dark, with a knife. From this point, Gaiman’s story spirals out to a room, a crib, a child and a journey. Genius.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Here is a line that tells you just about everything you need to know about the character it introduces.  On reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for the first time at the age of eight, I despised Eustace. Really, hated him. He was, to my mind, the worst kind of boy. Yet, as I read on I discovered that perhaps he, deep down, had the potential to be a little bit more than the sum of his rather unsavoury parts. A lesson that I’ve tried to remember ever since. Because, really, to truly and utterly deserve such a moniker, you’d have to be a horror indeed.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Surely there are few other lines that so perfectly introduce the reader to the narrator. Holden Caulfield is one of literature's most memorable protagonist and the reasons why are all there in that ballsy first line.

My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die. I counted.

Marchetta has the ability to combine haunting phrases with stark reality and it is seen no better than in the opening of Jellicoe Road, arguably her best work so far. It’s an incredibly sad line, encompassing unbelievable horror without ever describing it.  It is, as one later discovers, a pivotal line in the story, despite not being delivered by the novel’s protagonists and the image created in that first moment is one that will stay with readers long after the end of the book.

It strikes me that these first lines all have one thing in common – Like the mystery of Manderley, they all create questions to which a reader must have an answer. Why does his dog talk? Does anyone deserve the name Eustace? Why is there a father slowly dying in front of his children?  Why is Marley so definitely dead? Whose hand holds that knife in the dark?  These questions are what grabbed me, pulled me in and kept me reading.  Hopefully, you’ve all read these particular stories – if you haven’t then you SHOULD. Equally hopefully  you all know of some first lines that dragged you into a book and never let go.  Please share them, and their power, with the rest of us.


Unknown said…
I haven't read all of them. Once I read the first line of On The Jellicoe Road, though, I could barely put it down! ;)

Great choices from what I can tell.


Brandy @ A Little of the Book Life
Susan said…
Wow, what great first lines! I especially love the one for THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO. It's simple, but so perfect for the story. Great topic!
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