Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite first (Australian) lines
This is a bit of a copout, I know, but I’m travelling this week and don’t have a lot of time to write a seriously considered post. So, I’ve decided to simply do a list – of some of my favourite first lines from Australian literature. Like most readers I think, I do love a good first line, and the way it can get you into the story from the get-go. We all know the famous ones from books like Pride and prejudice, Moby Dick, A tale of two cities, Anna Karenina but these books haven’t cornered the market on great first lines. Here are some of my favourites from Australian works (in alphabetical order by author):
“I’m losing my nouns”, she admitted. (from Thea Astley‘s Coda)
“I’ve never sailed the Amazon.” (from Thea Astley’s Drylands)
No one knew or cared where the Newspaper of Claremont Street went in her spare time. (from Elizabeth Jolley‘s The newspaper of Claremont Street)
What have you brought me Hester? (from Elizabeth Jolley’s The well)
The sea has many voices. (from David Malouf‘s Ransom)
Breed ‘em tough, the old man says … (from Geoff Page‘s verse novel, The scarring)
There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around/That the colt from old Regret had got away … (from Banjo Paterson‘s poem, “The man from Snowy River)
“There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle,” said Rose. (from Patrick White‘s Voss)
What makes a great first line? Here are some of the features that grab me – though not every great first line has all of these:
- Is brief or spare (though there are some good long ones like A tale of two cities)
- Reads well, particularly in terms of rhythm
- Surprises me, shocks me or makes me laugh
- Is puzzling or mysterious
- Contains wordplay or intriguing imagery
There are practical things good first lines may do too, such as give an idea of what the novel is about and/or its theme/s (even if this isn’t immediately clear), set the tone and, perhaps, introduce the main (or, a significant) character. But these are additional benefits. I don’t think they are essential to grabbing the first-time reader.
How important is a first line to you? Guy Dammann, writing in The Guardian bookblog argues they are critical:
They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but they didn’t say anything about opening lines, which are surely fair game. For it seems to me that if the author can’t take the trouble, or hasn’t got the nous, to sculpt those words from which all the rest flow, then they probably won’t have taken the trouble in all those other key moments of the text when the interpretative pressure is at its highest, when the duty to capture a whole fictional world in a single breath is at its most pressing. Screw up the opening, screw up the book.
Do you have favourite first lines? I’d love to hear them – and your reasons if you’d like to share that too.