…Sitting on a startlingly orange sofa, as it happens, and balancing a lap-desk, not being possessed of a proper one. There’s the kitchen table, but we’ve an aversion to putting the computer at the same table where we take our tea. What we really sat down to do though wasn’t catch the atmosphere and character of Kinness Place, but collect together some of our favourite openings to books.
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. Is there a better beginning than Dodie Smith’s opening gambit to I capture the Castle? We have spent years trying to equal this one in our own writing, and likely won’t ever succeed. True at once to Cassandra’s voice, the tone of the story and our sense of the castle, this makes the promise that the story more than lives up to.
‘Take my camel, dear,’ said Aunt Dot as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. On the strength of that sentence, an Oxford friend sent us Rose McCauley’s The Towers of Trebizond. The Oxford friend was right; we did love it. The story of Aunt Dot, Laurie, Fr Chantrey-Pigg and their journey to Turkey is full not only of evocative landscapes but also of some of the most nuanced treatment of religion we’ve read. We still go shivery thinking of Laurie’s first introduction to Jerusalem. We won’t spoil it. Read it. We want another person to help unravel the symbolism of the camel. Unconvinced? The symbolic camel in question, and the High Mass both transpire in Oxford. Aunt Dot’s just that eccentric.
Long ago in London, in 1945, all the nice people were poor. It sounds like a fairytale, and Muriel Spark does have an ear for modern fairytales. This one is the beginning to The Girls of Slender Means. There is nothing you need to know about it except that the martyr is not a martyr and there is an unexploded bomb in the back garden of the May of Tech Club.
They’re all dead now. So begins Ann-Marie MacDonald’s gothic novel Fall on Your Knees. This was the sentence that set us collecting sentences. The fact that we fell in love with the novel was purely an afterthought.
I suppose it must have ben the shock of hearing the telephone ring, apparently in the church, that made me turn my head and see Piers Longridge in one of the side-aisles behind me. It wouldn’t be us without at least one Pym. She’s best read in well-worn cream paperbacks that smell of book. This is the opening of A Glass of Blessings, our second favourite after Excellent Women. Somehow she cuts right to the inciting incident while still leaving us with the fuzzy impression that we’re not reading a carefully crafted novel, only a slice of someone’s life.
My father had a face that could stop a clock. This was the sentence that set us on our love of Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next. We don’t read much fantasy or sic-fi. This manages to be both at once, as well as a consummate exercise in spot-the-literary-allusion. We’ve never looked back but have gone on to read this man’s work compulsively. Wherever academic coach Stephen Bloom is now, we owe him a tremendous debt for the recommendation.
Finally, what must be our favourite opening to a novel ever. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles an hour. This owes to David Lodge, specifically Changing Places. No one has ever made us laugh quite so much.
There are others of course; this is by no means a comprehensive list. We’ve tried to dodge our more obvious favourites, but we also can’t believe we’ve omitted so many; Lipman, Hardy, Monica Dickens are but a few. Some day we’ll draw up a list of favourite books and perhaps get around to doing her justice. In the meantime, go read!