Five Books I’ve Read with Memorable Opening Lines

I owe this post to H who came up with the idea when we were out walking one day, I can’t remember when or where. At first I dismissed it, rather snottily it has to be said, but by the time we were home I’d become quite enthusiastic and already had five striking openers all of which, I’m pleased to say, I’d remembered accurately apart from one and you’ll know why if you stick with me to the end of the post.

Cover image for The Crow Road by Iain BanksIt was the day my grandmother exploded

The first that sprang to mind is from The Crow Road, my favourite Iain Banks novel which tells the story of the McHoans through Prentice, home from university and faced with a host of family troubles. When his father dies in a freak accident, their differences unresolved, Prentice knows it’s time to shape up. He learns to deal graciously, if painfully, with his brother’s successful career and happiness with the lovely Verity. When an old friend uncovers some leads about his missing uncle, Prentice can’t resist following them no matter how shocking the outcome or how dangerous the path. Part thriller, part family saga, part coming-of age-novel, The Crow Road is one of Banks’ warmest and most accessible books.

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me

The opening sentence of Anthony Burgess’ 1981 Booker Prize-shortlisted Earthly Powers has stayed with me for a very long time. Allegedly based on Somerset Maugham’s life, it’s narrated by Kenneth Toomey, a respected novelist looking back over a life which has taken him from literary Paris and the glitz and sometimes sordid glamour of Hollywood in his youth to a long retirement on Malta. Toomey is a Catholic whose sexuality runs counter to the Church’s teachings, a man who’s witnessed the murder of a beloved friend and faced evil in Nazi concentration camps, concluding that it’s a trait innate in humanity. In contrast, his brother-in-law, a Catholic priest, sees evil as a force in the world. My lasting impression is of a very complex, erudite and rather self-consciously clever piece of fiction with a page-turning pace. Cover image for The Swallowed man by Edward Carey

I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish

It’s not surprising that this one’s stayed with me given it’s the opening of a book I’ve recently read but it’s such a striking image I think it’ll linger a while yet. It comes from Edward Carey’s Pinocchio-inspired, adult fairy tale, The Swallowed Man, in which Geppetto is swallowed by a fish while on the hunt for his lost son, a fish so gigantic it has a schooner already in its maw. Finding candles sufficient to last many days together with writing and painting materials on board and a box of matches in his trouser pocket, he decides to record his story and that of the son he carved from wood. Not a book I’d usually have picked up but I loved Little, Carey’s story of Madame Tussaud, and while The Swallowed Man is not its equal, it’s still worth reading for Carey’s admirable powers of invention.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard 

So begins Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier which lives up to its introduction. For nine years John Dowell and his wife Florence have travelled to a German spa town with their friends, Edward and Leonora. Both Florence and Edward suffer from heart conditions which it’s hoped their annual trips will ameliorate. Neither of their marriages are happy. Infidelities, power struggles and lies abound. While John appears to be the most injured, he’s clearly an unreliable narrator of this tale of marital misery, death and insanity. Not a cheery read, then, but at least its author gives us fair warning.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair

Cover image for A Tale of two Cities by Charles DickensI’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that it was only the first twelve words of The Tale of Two Cities’ long opening sentence that had firmly lodged in my brain. They were words that frequently popped into my head in the early days of the pandemic as we walked in glorious weather through beautiful countryside quiet enough to hear the birdsong usually drowned out by traffic, having socially distanced chats with strangers. Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, Dickens’ novel tells the story of Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sidney Carlton, a rather dodgy lawyer, both in love with the daughter of a political prisoner incarcerated in the Bastille for eighteen years. There’s another equally familiar line towards the novel’s end in Carlton’s redemptive speech which begins It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.

What about you – any memorable opening lines you’d like to share?

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.

43 thoughts on “Five Books I’ve Read with Memorable Opening Lines”

  1. I’ve done some research on this and have quite a few favourites: some of them far too obvious (they appear in all of the lists of famous opening lines). Lesser known perhaps but one much, much quoted by me is the opening line of Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means: ‘Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.’ But it’s Shirley Jackson who has two of my favourite opening paragraphs, just virtuoso performances in both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

  2. Two of these feature in the Bookshop Band’s song composed of first lines! (https://thebookshopband.bandcamp.com/track/once-upon-a-time) One day I’ll stop banging on about them … or maybe not 🙂 It was the first line plus your review in the book clubs guide that convinced me to read The Crow Road earlier this year. I’m trying The Wasp Factory now and it’s certainly a striking voice, but difficult to push through because of the subject matter.

    The only one of your picks I haven’t read is Earthly Powers, but now that I know what it’s about it sounds unmissable.

    1. Don’t stop banging on about them, and thanks for the link! I’m glad you read The Crow Road. The Wasp Factory is not such an easy read but the two novels together demonstrate Banks’ versatility, I think.

  3. I loved this post, Susan!
    Here are the opening lines of a book I recently finished, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha (1953): “What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky; so altering, views from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions.” 🙂

  4. This is the first memorable opening line I ever read “It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”. I was 16. Forty-five years later I still think it’s pretty good.

  5. Great post Susan! I’ve always had a soft spot for the opening line of Love in the Time Of Cholera: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

  6. I really liked the opening line of Damon Galgut’s The Quarry: “Then he came out of the grass at the side of the road and stood without moving.” I love the way it both creates immediacy and suggests that the key event is already in the past, that the world as it was is lost.

    I’ve been wanting to start a book with “then” ever since, but haven’t managed it yet!

  7. A great post. Thank you! I’ve loved all the comments, too. One of my favorite first lines is from Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”

  8. I love this, some of the opening lines I particularly love come from novels like I Capture the Castle, We have always lived in the castle, The Bell Jar, and Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond.

  9. I was about to say Shirley Jackson, but Marina has beaten me to it – with the very same novels as it happens! Jackson’s opening paragraphs are legendary.

    Anita Brookner also springs to mind, particularly for her debut novel, A Start in Life. “Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”

  10. Here’s a favorite opening line of mine: “The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.” – The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton!

    1. Thanks, Davida. Very much enjoyed The Miniaturist which took me to one of my favourite cities. I was lucky enough to see the dolls’ houses in the Rijksmuseum that had inspired Burton back in 2015.

  11. The Anthony Burgess first line is a peach. I thought about doing something like this a few years ago but when I dug out my favourite books most of them didn’t have particularly striking first lines.

  12. This is a fun idea! I loved hearing everyone’s favourite first lines. I wish I could come up with one on the spot, but I would have to go searching – I’m impressed that you could remember even a few!

  13. Years ago, pre-home-internet, Penguin had a contest (in the newspaper) in which readers had to identify the first lines of many books. Some of them were recognizable by a bookish person by the inclusion of a significant character’s name, but often they were simply striking statements. I remember combing through the shelves of classics in the library, desperately trying to complete (but i don’t believe I ever did…I wonder if it’s still stuck in a book around here somewhere).

  14. I am a bit behind times looking at this post now but I love the sound of Anthony Burgess’, Earthly Powers (it would not normally be what I might choose) and one from your Japanese book list, Durian Sukegawa’s, Sweet Bean Paste. I now look forward to reading them both, thank you for your recommendations!

    1. You’re welcome! I’m not sure Earthly Powers lives up to that magnificent opening line, it’s so long since I read it, but Sweet Bean Paste is a delight.

  15. Earthly Powers is on its way and it sounds such an interesting book I am sure I will be an enriching read either way and will be good to read a book that I might not ordinarily read. I will follow it with Sweet Bean Paste and I am sure they will both go down very well!

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