Bookish Post: The First Line Test

Teacup and saucer being held above a pile of open books.

What is the first line of your favourite book?

I sometimes think that a memorable first line is a bit of a curse. I know that might sound crazy. After all, authors go through a lot to try and find the perfect opening to draw people in. Surely it must be on the major keys to success? But think about it. What if you have a really great opening but the rest of the novel can’t live up? Every time I see rundowns of books with the best first lines, I see plenty of books that I don’t really care about. Pride and Prejudice? The opening is iconic, certainly, but I find the rest of it rather bland. 1984? The opening promises so much that the repetitive and long novel can’t fully deliver. So, a great opening line doesn’t always indicate a 5 star read. But what about my favourite reads? Do they all have attention grabbing first lines? Do they pass the first line test? Let’s find out.

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

“Scarcely had the abbey bell tolled for five minutes, and already the church of the Capuchins thronged with auditors.”

Let’s be honest, this doesn’t tell you much about what’s to come. You’d have no idea of the mental ride you’re about to go on. I guess it fits the gothic romance style he’s playing off. Plus the preface and advertisement before this that work to set the scene.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

Straight talk: the framing narrative of Mary Shelley’s novel is a load of wank. I’m sorry if you’re one of the few who enjoy it but I don’t think it adds anything. I wish it didn’t exist.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

“It was a nice day.”

This is such a simple line and I honestly love it. It has a weird sense of foreboding to it. Especially when you know the synopsis of the book and, indeed, the writers. It’s memorable in its own way and kind of cute. Almost childish.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

“My desert-island, all time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1) Alison Ashworth
2) Penny Hardwick
3) Jackie Allen
4) Charlie Nicholson
5) Sarah Kendrew.”

Okay, here we have our first really punch first line. This tells you so much about the character of Rob and what you’re in for. You get right into the action, it’s self-deprecating and recognisable as a pop culture reference.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

“Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, or thirty-four in Korean age.”

There’s nothing particularly special about this line but it’s definitely in keeping with the tone of the book. There’s something clinical and removed about it. These are facts that nobody can deny. We don’t know anything about Kim Jiyoung but there’s something about this line that gets me. It’s to the point and leaves you wanting to find out more about Kim Jiyoung.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

“And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.”

This. This is an example of a great opening line and a book that lives up to it. I love that this starts halfway through something. It shows you that life has been moving forward and it shows that everything is about to change. We’re getting on this train at an important junction and big things are going to happen.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

I like Catherine Morland. I know most people think she’s annoying and stupid but not me. I warmed to her much more than I ever did to Lizzie. How can you not love her after this opening line? It makes her seem so normal. It’s so easy to relate to her after this. It’s also the most self-aware opening line in an Austen novel. It’s fun and it breaks the fourth wall. I think it’s better than P&P for sure.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

“In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.”

A seemingly mundane opening line but one that certainly gains significance when you’re rereading. I don’t want to say too much but this line doesn’t give any hints of what you’re about to go through.

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