Re-reading Graham Greene’s ‘entertainment’, The Ministry of Fear, recently, a book so of its time and yet ahead of its time, a taut psyschological thriller as much at home in the 21st century as it was in the tense atmosphere of wartime Britain I was struck by the brilliance of its opening line:
‘There was something about a fete which drew Arthur Rowe irresistibly, bound him a helpless victim to the distant blare of a band and the knock-knock of wooden balls against coconuts, of course this year there were no coconuts because there was a war on.’
The entire novel is neatly summed up in those lines, the everyday turned sinister, the looming presence of the war infecting every part of English life, the torture of the central character. Graham Greene knew how to write. Grabbing the reader by the throat is clearly not a modern invention, but all the great opening lines do more than engage their audience, they get to the essence of the novel itself.
Some other examples that immediately sprung to mind:
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)
Perhaps the most famous opening line of all, save for Pride and Prejudice, the haunting nature of the story about to unfold is clear from the get-go. Rebecca is often seen as too accessible (i.e. readable) to be truly great literature by modern critics. Yet, from its anonymous narrator to making the reader complicit in murder, Du Maurier pulls off some impressive literary feats in this work.
‘His children are falling from the sky.’
Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel (2012)
He, Cromwell’s world is upside down as Bring Up the Bodies opens, his beloved girls and wife dead and buried, his political world about to be uprooted, all that brought home in the brilliant metaphor of hunting birds.
‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’
The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley (1953)
Nostalgia, a different moral climate, a forgotten way of life from a vanishing world of privilege, all can be interpreted from the opening of L.P. Hartley’s most famous novel.
‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s claustrophobic, uncomfortable novel on depression and the oppressiveness of society and social norms opens as it means to go on.
‘They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.’
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys (1966)
Jean Rhys’s haunting postcolonial take on Jane Eyre, starts as it means to go on, from the perspective of its Creole heroine who suffers so much at the hands of her English husband, unnamed, but in essence Charlotte Bronte’s complex hero Rochester. After so many books written over the centuries before from the perspective of white Europeans, this was a book to accompany the Winds of Change, not the first by any means, but perhaps the best.