For a reader – oh, the anticipation, the curiosity, that comes when we read the opening passage of a book.
In this time-poor world, once finding a gap in a busy life, the luxury of having a book at hand, then our fingers turn open the cover, flip through the front matter, all the stuff we rarely read, and at last there it is, the first page of text and we are ready to begin our excursion into another world, to immerse ourselves into someone else’s life and share their pain and their success in a dynamic quest that is the journey of fiction.
That first page, with its label – Chapter 1 or simply a single digit or a name – and then, there it is, the portal to the other world, the opening passage, the most important passage in any form of any writing.
In February 1969 Elizabeth Hardwick wrote under the title ‘Reflections of Fiction’ the following view, plunging immediately into citing openings of three well-known novels, the first being Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, the second Evelyn Waugh’s character Mrs Melrose Ape, and the third, Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice.
Hardwick explains when we begin to read ‘bells ring out, signalling, like lines of poetry. They promise a certain kind of drama, to be explored and developed in a more or less orderly way. They tell us, each differently, of the tone of the inspiration and they promote readiness to surrender the whole of our interest to the special and unique atmospher of each book.’
Times have changed since 1969. Adventures are delivered in a flash across our screens whether they be on a computer, tablet or mobile. Each delivery of bite-sized pieces demand we grasp meaning immediately and are soon overlaid by newer, fresher, more dramatic information. Concentration spans are being reduced by constant interruptions and distractions. As the demand for our attention increases, our lives become more and more time-poor.
Despite this trend, reading a novel for many continues to hold value. Is it because – as many claim – the novel is a form of escapism? Or is it that, as we are swept through the rapidity of modern life, we still glimpse an island of respite, or a gentle hand reaching out and inviting us to pause time or turn it backwards?
It is my belief that within the imaginary world of the novel we are offered an opportunity to reconnect with, or to explore, the complexities of our humanity.
Yes, I shout, yes, yes, yes, to all these possibilities.
In the novel the complexities of human existence can be understood through our most human of emotions, empathy, whether our journey takes us to the foreign and frozen world of a past Russia that Tolstoy brings to us, to William Gibson’s cyber-futures, or to the realm of contemporary fiction and the hopeful outcomes of journeys into love or acceptance. Somewhere within the story, we will find a connection to ourselves and our own lives or we will learn or be reminded of something, or have our curiosities aroused. We will see what we didn’t know our subconscious had been seeking, whether that provides merely temporary respite or a giant prod to wake-up our intelligence.
For King, the opening begins with voice. To him, voice is much more than style. A unique voice distinguishes a book from others. It establishes an intimate connection and offers an invitation. A good opening will say to a reader here’s someone with something to say, here’s a place in which you can be entertained or into which you can escape, or that something intriguing will happen here. Openings of his own that King holds dear are for his novel 11/22/63 (Hodder and Stoughton 2011), which is ‘I’ve never been what you’d call a crying man’ and for Salem’s Lot ‘Everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son’ (Hodder and Stoughton 2005).Another favourite is his opening line of It (Hodder and Stoughton 1986): ‘The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.’ King takes months of thinking, revising, reconfiguring and reconsidering to achieve his openers. He can remember each and every one of his opening passages.
Here some of my personal stand-out openers.
The first chapter with question-pop-ingly entitled “Here’s” of Carol Shields’ novel Unless (Fourth Estate, 2002), begins:
‘It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in-between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It take all your cunning just to hang on to it and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.’
We have been given the clues. The narrator-character is experiencing something new. A reader can discern from the passage this person has until this moment has had a good life, and that what is about to be revealed is events and circumstances that conclude in a first-time loss. We can only can guess the degree of despair being experienced but by the phrases ‘visitations of darkness’ and ‘a lucky pane of glass’ now smashed, we suspect this loss may be monumental. We need to know what has been lost and perhaps have begun to compile a list of possibilities. A lover? A child? Hope? A future? We still do not know the narrator’s gender or age or circumstance. Of course, as readers, we must know more.
In Extinction (UWAP 2010), Josephine Wilson places her readers immediately into the environment of one of her characters, into an ordinary and unexceptional space of a plain room in a ordinary location, and there’s a hint of someone contemplating the wider if also unextraordinary broader world:
‘Out the window there was nothing that could be called poetry, nothing windswept, billowing, tossing or turning in a streaky sky, nothing other than a taut blue dome and the low drone of air conditioners. In the car parks across the city women pulled on soft cotton hats and cowered under brollies. Babies kicked and squalled, itchy with heat rash. Fridges groaned. Water dripped from old rubber seals. Milk soured. Fans turned. The grid strained.’
It’s hot, perhaps the city is undergoing a heatwave or this suggests a state of normality throughout the summer period. Most of us have memories of a similar mood that comes with lengthy spells of high temperatures. I live in Western Australia and immediately I can relate to the scene Josephine has set. Indeed, reading further, I soon discover the story is indeed set in my home state. But, as I consider this opening passage, I wonder have I only overlaid my own experiences on the reading? No, I decide, Josephine’s work in the opening has embedded into my thoughts a specific climate. As her readers, Josephine invites us to sense the lethargy that high temperatures induce and visualise a city and its population waiting for the change to blow in, for relief to arrive, although in this imaginary world there’s a suggestion that everyone is holding their breath, perhaps convinced relief will be a long time coming, and weary that this heat has lingered too long. A subtle question is raised. Who is this somnolent person for whom days are long and empty and why is this so?
Let us now look at Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Penguin 1991).
‘Will you look at us by the river! The whole restless mob of us on spread blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clear, sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living. Yachts run before an unfelt gust with bagnecked pelicans riding above them, the city their twitching backdrop, all blocks and points of mirror light down to the water’s edge.’
Tim sets the not only the narrative’s tone and the voice but also implies an era long past as he introduces his main characters: a region, a city, the river and a ‘mob’ of a family.
And finally, here’s one of my favourite authors, Richard Flanagan. Richard opens The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pan Macmillan 1997) with an assumption about his readers and their knowledge of his home state, a belief I suspect he continues to hold.
‘All of this you will come to understand but can never know, and all of it took place long long ago in a world that has since perished into peat, in a forgotten winter on an island of which few have ever heard. It began in that time before snow completely and irrevocably covers footprints. As black clouds shroud the star and moonlit heavens, as an unshadowable darkness comes upon the whispering land.’
This one paragraph conveys the bone-biting coldness of pre-snow, the threatening darkness of a cloud-shrouded sky and the mystery embedded in the location and in the exposed footprints. Reading further in and we learn the location is the settlement of Butler’s Gorge on the island of Tasmania, and the footprints are those of Maria Buloh walking away from her child, her home, and the settlement, an act that underwrites all that follows. The mood is sombre, and only dire consequences can be anticipated from the question aroused about what possible circumstances would drive Maria to abandon her life. Again, we readers, our appetites sharpened, need to know more.
While I might only wish for Richard’s prowess and poetry I am willing myself to risk sharing with you (and with fingers crossed and my writer’s heart shielded) the opening paragraph of Between (Lily Ellen Publishing 2020).
‘The room is plain. It contains only essentials. Exactly as a hotel in a remote Papua New Guinea town needs to be. It’s not a resort. It isn’t designed to entice poolside lingering. Its aim is merely to provide single-night sleeping facilities for people travelling to or from other places. A dying woman requires only a bed, water to sip, and her own contemplations. These are what this room offers me and now I must wait.’