I love the feeling of entry into a novel, the sense of being drawn into a world, a life, a relationship, a story. If a writer succeeds in doing this in the first few paragraphs, then I am usually hooked for the duration; I am already reading with goodwill—wanting to like, or love, the story the writer has promised me.
There are many ways this can be achieved, and the fine examples below use different narrative techniques. But I’m struck by how often a good beginning seems to contain within it a sliver of the whole, a glimpse of all that is to come, sometimes even a shadow of the ending in these first few lines. Of course, you don’t fully realise this until you have finished the novel, and that realisation brings yet another pleasure—and a deep satisfaction—to the reading experience.
Another reason to love a novel.
My husband told me a story about buildings before we came here. In the central district the old Hongkong and Shanghai Bank looms proudly above the other buildings, full of British bankers and rich Americans. When the People’s Bank of China built their rival headquarters several blocks away they designed the top of the tower to look like a knife’s edge thrusting towards the British bank. It was no accident, Joseph laughed. In Hong Kong nothing was left to simmer under the surface.
It must have been during those first December days that he told me the story, before he got caught up in the suspended time of the interior. Perhaps on one of the days we walked together up a mountain path and saw the vista of islands rising up from the China Sea, curving smoothly out of the green glassiness like the contours of a body, the mist of early morning a canopy against the blue of the sky. We looked at one another, each about to say something, our double gasp of awe fading in the air.
It was these luminous moments, rescued from days of waiting and silence, that I was trying to hold on to.
—Alice Nelson, The Last Sky (Fremantle Press, 2008)
Today, somehow, I am a smoker.
I did not know this about myself. As far as I remember, I have never smoked before.
It feels unnatural, ill-fitting, for a woman of my age: a wife, a mother with a grown-up son, to sit in the middle of the day with a cigarette between her fingers. Hector hates smoking. He always coughs sharply when we walk behind someone smoking on the street, and I imagine his vocal cords rubbing together, moist and pink like chicken flesh.
—Emma Chapman, How to Be a Good Wife (Picador, 2013)
A whisper: sssshh. The thinnest vehicle of breath.
This is a story that can only be told in a whisper.
There is a hush to difficult forms of knowing, an abashment, a sorrow, an inclination towards silence. My throat is misshapen with all it now carries. My heart is a sour, indolent fruit. I think the muzzle of time has made me thus, has deformed my mouth, my voice, my wanting to say. At first there was just this single image: her dress, the particular blue of hydrangeas, spattered with the purple of my father’s blood. She rose up from the floor into this lucid figure, unseemly, but oh! vivacious with gore. I remember I clung to her, that we were alert and knowing. There might have been a snake in the house, for all our watchful attention.
‘Don’t tell them,’ she said. That was all: don’t tell them.
—Gail Jones, Sorry (Vintage, 2007)