A little while ago I saw a quote from the American novelist Gloria Naylor – ‘One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work.’ Other than in consciously literary works, I wondered how often this happened so I took a few favourite books from my bookcase. I found that this is not always the case and I am not so sure that it matters. The beginning of a novel should entice the reader to continue on and I think the first sentence of all these novels do that. Taken on their own, beginning sentences may not give a strong sense of the story but they do give a taste of the writer’s style.
Rather than see how these sentences reflect the stories as a whole, which would be giving too much away, I decided to compare them to the final sentences. Sometimes the connection is clear even without having read the book. The first and last sentences of The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis are particularly fitting for a retelling of Christ’s struggle to accept his mission on earth. And, in the case of Dissolution by CJ Sansom, although they almost summarize the setting, a potential reader would certainly miss out on an excellent book if they took that to be the whole story.
Others are more enigmatic. With The Innocents by CA Asbery the opening sentence is eye-widening but deceptive. The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements opens with a stunning sentence, enhanced by the sentence that comes after it. But the ending can only be made sense of after reading the whole book. The power of the final sentence of Soul Catcher by Michael White comes from the time and place where Cain takes up his book and reads, and the role of his reading in the narrative. And what is the final sentence of The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey? As this is a tale told backwards, is it found on the last page of the book (the sentence below) or is it the final sentence of ‘Day 4’ which is about a quarter of the way through the book?
A book will not fail if the first sentence does not encompass the whole book but the sentences, paragraphs and pages that follow need to capture readers’ imaginations enough to make them read on.
The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage
The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis
A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.
And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun.
I was down in Surrey, on business for Lord Cromwell’s office, when the summons came.
We stood silent, watching the seabirds bobbing on the river, while behind us echoed the distant sound of crashing lead.
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey
Dust and ashes though I am, I sleep the sleep of angels.
It didn’t matter; it would never come to be.
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Nóra’s first thought when they brought her the body was that it could not be her husband’s.
Only the birds above her and, in the slow unpeeling of darkness, a divinity of sky.
Cain had been awakened by the frenzied whinnying of a horse below his window in the street.
Still there is time yet, so he opens his book and begins to read.
Jungfrau by Dympna Cusack
Thea savored the word carefully, til suddenly it ceased to have any meaning at all.
Instead, he had a sudden vision of gleaming snow on mountain-tops piercing the sky – white, proud and untouched.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.
He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall.
The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements
I was born with blood on my hands.
Scarcross Hall is mine.
The Innocents by CA Asbrey
The knife slipped through the skin, twisting and gouging over and over again until the soft flesh was mushy and yielding to the blade.
If you underestimate someone, it only ever makes it easier for them to get one over on you.