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Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite first (Australian) lines

February 13, 2012

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 citiesAnna 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.

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52 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew Todd permalink
    February 13, 2012 6:32 pm

    “The morning is ending, and I’ve just opened my eyes.” That’s from Tsiolkas’ Loaded.

    I like my openers short and sharp – anything too long, and I get bored.

    • February 13, 2012 8:44 pm

      Oh good Matt … I tend to be the same. One of my favourites is for Beloved … 124 was spiteful. I love it.

  2. Hannah permalink
    February 13, 2012 6:52 pm

    “There’s more life up this end,” Mrs Poulter said. (From Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala)

    Another thought-provoking post, Whispering. I just know I’m going to go home and look through all of my Australian novels!

    Have fun on your travels x

    • February 13, 2012 8:46 pm

      Ah yes, that’s a good one Hannah. I love that book too. Your favourite first lines don’t have to be Australian just because that’s the topic of this post, btw.

  3. Hannah permalink
    February 13, 2012 11:02 pm

    Really? Well, in that case:

    Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. (Mrs Dalloway)

    and

    I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. (I Capture the Castle)

    • February 14, 2012 8:24 am

      Yes, good ones. Mrs Dalloway is one of those ones often quoted … But I haven’t heard the I capture the castle one. IN the sink eh?

  4. February 14, 2012 2:05 am

    I don’t think it’s a copout at all. I’ll have to think about the first lines…

    • February 14, 2012 8:25 am

      Why thank you Guy … You can comment here again! What are Max Barry’s first lines like?

  5. February 14, 2012 4:19 am

    Since I just finished reading Kim Scott’s ‘That Deadman Dance’ I’ll add its first line.

    “aya
    Writing such a word, Bobby Wabalanginy couldn’t help but smile.”

    It was certainly intriguing and made me go back and reread it a couple of times and then march onward to learn what it meant. It appeals to me, because I have a thing about words and is a new one in a language I don’t know. My blog is called ‘Word by Word’ so kind of apt this book begins with just one word. And now that I have finished, it is poignant indeed.

    • February 14, 2012 8:30 am

      Oh, great one Claire. Am on the road now but will check your blog when I get back.

      • February 15, 2012 5:29 pm

        Oops, just learned that first word was ‘Kaya’ not ‘aya’. Thats the kindle putting the letter K on one line and the aya on the next, not knowing the word, I didn’t realise, but thanks to your post and one of its commenters, I do now!

        • February 15, 2012 6:59 pm

          I wondered if you’d seen that Claire! I was out of town when your comment came and couldn’t check the novel myself … I have a Kindle too, and like it a lot, but they’re not always perfect are they!

        • February 15, 2012 10:27 pm

          Not when they put the first letter of the first word on a separate line, no. But without it, I would not have had access to this gem as quickly as I did.

        • February 15, 2012 10:28 pm

          Pluses and minuses, pluses and minuses, eh? Such is life really!

        • February 15, 2012 10:31 pm

          But constantly evolving and improving, gotta love it, this new notification thing on wordpress is the best, instant reply to comments for this ‘no internet phone chick’

        • February 15, 2012 10:34 pm

          It is good isn’t it … WordPress’s changes are mostly well thought through I find. A great platform.

  6. February 14, 2012 5:01 am

    The opening to Bleak House with the fog is fantastic but too long to quote so I give you another favorite Dickens opener to Great Expectations: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” And also, as someone mentioned above, Mrs. Dalloway. I love the first line on your list. It makes me want to read that book!

    • February 14, 2012 8:35 am

      Bleak House is one of my favourites too … A rare great one that is long! Dickens tended to go in for long ones … Went with the Victorian territory I guess. GE’s one that you quoted is good too, I agree. And glad you like Coda’s. It’s one I’ve never forgotten … And made me want to red the book when I picked it up the first time.

  7. February 14, 2012 5:14 am

    Limiting myself to Australian first lines, specifically, the first one I think of is Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life: “Unemployed at last!” Followed by a line of asterisks. And then, “Scientifically, such a contingency can never have befallen of itself. According to one theory of the Universe, the momentum of Original Impress has been tending toward this far-off, divine event ever since a scrap of fire-mist flew from the solar centre to form our planet. Not this event alone, of course; but every occurrence, past and present, from the fall of captured Troy to the fall of a captured insect. According to another theory, I hold an independent diploma as one of the architects of our Social System, with a commission to use my own judgment, and take my own risks, like any other unit of humanity. This theory, unlike the first, entails frequent hitches and cross-purposes; and to some malign operation of these I should owe my present holiday.”

    • February 14, 2012 8:40 am

      Oh that’s a great one DKS. Behind the “at last” is clearly a long story … Love the two theories, fate vs individual responsibilility … And yet a sense of its not being quite that simple a dichotomy.

      • February 14, 2012 9:12 am

        It fits most of your criteria too. One: short. Two: reads fine to me though too brief to get up much of a rhythm. Three: funny via unexpectedness, being not, “I’ve lost my job, this is a disaster, what am I going to do?” but unemployment as a legitimate aspiration successfully fulfilled. Reader may conclude that character is incorrigible and likely to bounce back from disaster, which is a good way for a comic character to be (further examples, Mr Micawber, Wile E. Coyote). Four: mysterious. What job, how did he lose it? Five: intriguing imagery, not sure about that one, although the idea of this man (assume it’s a man since the author is a man) clicking his heels hooray following a firing, is intriguing me.

        • February 14, 2012 5:43 pm

          Oh, good analysis DKS. part of me wanted to analyse each of mine but in the end decided that might be going overboard for all the lines I’ve given. yours is certainly an opening that surprises and makes you want to know more.

  8. February 14, 2012 9:11 am

    Found this on twitter and I love it. I’m going to share it on my Newsday Tuesday tomorrow.

  9. Jude permalink
    February 14, 2012 2:59 pm

    “Unemployed at last” Joseph Furphy is my favourite Australian opening line as well. My all time favourite from anywhere though is:
    “I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley.” from “How Green was my Valley” – Richard Llewellyn. I defy anyone not to almost burst into tears!

  10. February 14, 2012 4:14 pm

    I suppose there are many I could quote if only i could remember them. However, I did comment on another blog requesting favourite opening lines in Science Fiction novels.

    Here’s what I wrote:

    The opening lines to Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer sprang to mind when I read the heading to this post. They are “It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” closely followed by the first few sentences of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash – “The Deliverator belongs to an elite order; a hallowed subcategory . He’s got esprit up to here.”

    • February 14, 2012 5:47 pm

      Thanks for these Anne. I suspect sci fi would have quite a few great first lines …

  11. February 14, 2012 4:25 pm

    Also, just thought of the opening lines to 1984 which are remarkable and chilling:

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    • February 14, 2012 5:46 pm

      Oh yes, Anne, that Orwell one is one of those that often pops up. It’s certainly mysterious … And surprising. Somehow, I would think that clocks striking 13 would be night but he says day which adds to the weirdness.

  12. February 14, 2012 5:16 pm

    French-wise, the Comte de Lautreamont (not his real name, not an aristocrat, and not even, in fact, French) gives it a shot in Maldoror: “May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened, and become momentarily as fierce as what he reads, find without loss of bearings a wild and abrupt way across the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-filled pages.” (translated by Alexia Lykiard) That’s not bad.

  13. February 15, 2012 8:01 am

    Great post, not a copout at all. Only you’ve caught me unprepared. I’m far from my books, can’t remember a thing, and don’t have time to hunt down online. But lovely to be reminded of the opening lines of Voss. Also those of The Solid Mandela.

    Makes me want to reread all of White’s books!

    • February 15, 2012 7:03 pm

      Thanks Catherine … glad you enjoyed the post. First lines are always fun to look at, think about I think. I record the first sentence of all the books I read in my little database of books read. I didn’t at the beginning but started doing so a few years ago .

  14. February 15, 2012 11:54 am

    A great post! I’ve just looked up the first line of my favourite book for 2011, Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears: “The sound of horses’ hooves turns hollow on the farms west of Wirri.”
    Some lovely alliteration there, good rhythm, an intriguing hint of loss (hollow) and mystery, and a strong sense of place and one of the main foci of character and identity in the novel, horses.

    And Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, which won the Miles Franklin in 2011, opens with a one word sentence. so I guess we have to allow two sentences here:

    “Kaya.
    Writing such a word, Bobby Wabalanginy couldn’t help but smile.”

    What the word means, who Bobby is, what makes him smile, is opaque, certainly intriguing. But the first sentences, indeed the first page, is like the rest of the book. Meaning is deeply folded, weaving the Indigenous voices and the wadjela voices, the narrative is fragmented, and the poetry of place is what holds it all together. I didn’t find this book easy to read, partly because I kept leaving it to do other things, and read it over 2 or 3 months. I think if it had been an easier read, I would have finished it sooner. I will need to return to it some time and hope it yields up more of its meaning for me.

    • February 15, 2012 7:07 pm

      Oh Christina … I’m about to read Foal’s bread in the next week or so … I look forward to recognising the first line. It is a great one.

      I didn’t find That deadman dance hard to read … once I got into the flow, which took a couple of chapters. It would be hard to read over a long period of time, though, I think.

  15. February 15, 2012 10:48 pm

    Hi I’m Henni I’m high I’m Henni I’m high I’m Henni I’m high hi!

    (45 + 47 Stella Street and Everything That Happened.)

    I love this post! Super fun :) Not a cop-out at all :)

    • February 15, 2012 11:00 pm

      Now, there’s certainly some alliteration and word play there. And mystery. Who is Henni and why is she high?

  16. February 16, 2012 3:52 am

    From the number of comments here you’d know even your copout is interesting! Guy D.’s commentary on the first line is debatable, I feel. How do you know the first line is not already ‘sculpted’ or that it’s a ‘screw-up’, if you haven’t even read the book? Because, the first line has to be viewed in context with the whole book, including the last line… taken into consideration of the overall atmosphere, the plot, and the final outcome, and however the writer wants to instill in the reader’s mind at the beginning. What’s so great about “The day broke grey and dull.”? But this line from Of Human Bondage which I read as a young adult still remains in my mind now decades later.

    Enjoy your trip to Omeo!

    • February 16, 2012 8:01 am

      Good point Arti. I often go back to the first line/s when I finish a book because it often illuminates the book – helps me focus – in a way it usually doesn’t quite when I start. Though I still think Guy has a point too. The opening has to get you in. Your grey, dull day, gives you a sense, a mood, a tone – and makes you wonder who is living in this day and what is going to happen to them. I like its brevity too.

  17. February 16, 2012 5:29 pm

    I love opening lines, they have so much….promise. If we’re focusing on Australian authors, I’ll put in a plug for an under-appreciated Aussie female author (that’s almost tautology), Ernestine Hill. The opening line of “The Great Australian Loneliness” is direct and intriguing,

    ” ‘Of course you’ll take a gun’ they said to me when I left Melbourne, ‘even if it’s only one of those little mother-of-pearl things the vamps used to carry in their evening-bags.”

    • February 16, 2012 6:22 pm

      Cheeky, Melinda, cheeky … re the tautology. Ernestine Hill. Yes, I had forgotten her. Did she write something called My love must wait? Must go look it up. What a great first list … so much to unpack in that one!

  18. February 16, 2012 5:51 pm

    I loved that book, it is full of stunning descriptions, and her courage and independence in that era was astonishing. I was a bit confronted by her patronising attitudes to the Indigenous people, but of course she was limited by the socio-cultural attitudes of her time. I remember being very caught by the opening sentence, too.

    • February 16, 2012 6:28 pm

      Thanks Christine. I guess that attitude was common for the era … we have to make allowances for that I think don’t we? I often think of Harriet Beecher Stowe — she was an emancipator but she was still pretty patronising as I recollect. I don’t know that book at all so must look out for it. I love the title.

  19. February 16, 2012 7:18 pm

    WG I wasn’t directing any cheekiness at you, if I recall you’ve mentioned plenty of Aussie women writers. Yes Ernestine did write My Love Must Wait and it is rumoured that she actually wrote a lot of Daisy Bates’ work. Attitudes to indigenous people were very different in those days Christine, I think she was probably as enlightened as it was possible to be in those days.

    • February 16, 2012 7:32 pm

      Oh Melinda, I didn’t read it as being directed at me but at the general low level of recognition. I thought your comment was very clever.

      And yes, I now do recollect the suggestions re Daisy Bates. Thanks for that bit of history.

      I know I could look this up but is My love must wait about Matthew Flinders? I can’t recollect whether I’ve read it though I have strong recollections of its being around in my younger days.

  20. February 16, 2012 7:57 pm

    Yes, My Love Must Wait is about Matthew Flinders, but I must confess and hang my head in shame that I haven’t read it.

    • February 16, 2012 9:32 pm

      Oh but you have clearly read AND remembered her and that counts for a lot! thanks for reminding me (us) of her.

  21. February 21, 2012 9:20 pm

    Least favourite first line: ” Busted, Brett panicked.” Sorry Scott Monk, I hated this book! (Raw)

    • February 21, 2012 11:13 pm

      Now you’re a lateral thinker Justine … love that you shared your least favourite line! Must say that it doesn’t grab me from what you’ve provided even though it is short!

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