Some books just grab you from the very first lines, don’t you think? I absolutely love it when that happens. Here’s my list of my top ten opening lines:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.
JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Recently I’ve heard lots of people saying that this book, which resonated hugely with them in their youth, is actually pretty annoying when re-read as an adult. But I still love the voice of Holden Caulfield that Salinger created, and it’s captured perfectly in these opening lines.
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.
Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
An opener that immediately makes you doubt the veracity of what you’re being told…yes!
Everything within takes place before Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River in East-Central Columbia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met.
Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity
Oh my gadz! This is a seriously amazing first line, and what’s more, in the edition I have, it’s printed on the cover of the book, along with the rest of the opening. I know that sounds weird, but the story doesn’t start when you open the book and have passed the dedications and publication details & whatnot - it starts right there on the cover. Genius!
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in january of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Well, colour me intrigued!
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
Smash! Straight into it! Aren’t you dying to know why? I sure was.
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
I know I have two from Eugenides on this list - I guess opening lines are one of his special talents. I think it’s hard for a novel to pull off starting with the end, but Eugenides nails it here.
We ascended towards the light, five floors up, and split into thirteen rows facing the god who unlocks the gates of morning.
Peter Hoeg, Borderliners
This is just an amazing sentence. So startling and filled with puzzlement, and so beautifully expressed.
When the lights went off, the accompanist kissed her.
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
I love how this one brings you straight into the action of the scene, with no preamble.
The scene that the child, then the girl, then the young woman tried so hard to remember was clear enough in its beginnings.
Doris Lessing, Mara and Dann
This is a beautiful line which evokes so cleverly the sense that much time has passed between the telling of the story, and its beginning.
Many years later, as he faced the firing quad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Like Dave Eggers’ opening, this one begins with the end, but also lets us know about an amazing thing that’s about to happen right now: so clever.
What are your favourite opening lines? Do any of these intrigue you enough to make you want to read the book?