Blast Off! – Opening Lines by Jessica Norrie.
At choir last week, rehearsing Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, there was a massive crescendo and the pianist stopped accompanying to announce: “That’s known as a Rossini Rocket.” It really is, apparently. Respect.
It set me wondering about Rossini Rockets in literature. Huge, telling moments when everything catches fire and the reader can hardly hear herself think. Battle scenes in War and Peace. Anything involving Bill Sykes or Becky Sharpe. The fire in the picture gallery at Soames Forsyte’s house. Fires anywhere – think of Jane Eyre and Miss Havisham. The 19th century may have been better at this. Presumably, something sparks somewhere in Fifty Shades of Grey, although I only got to around page 53 when I found it in my cousin’s guest bedroom. Nothing much was even smouldering by then, so I went to sleep.
Rossini could write a telling overture too, but authors need a rocket, or at least a hook, right at the start. Dickens has the best opening line ever: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” (A Tale of Two Cities). What scope he gives himself, with that, for anything at all to happen, in any possible way. The reader is agog. “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” is a Jane Austen opener we can all finish in our sleep, but fans of John Crace’s Digested Read will note the whole plot is in that statement. With that sentence, Austen could have cut her words by 122,166 and still had the story (my thanks to My Particular Friend for the word count).
A weak opening line doesn’t have to be the end of sales and reputation though. Consider Marcel Proust’s “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” It loses a comma without gaining interest in translation: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Don’t expect nightlife or shenanigans in these nine volumes (though if memory serves even Proust got somewhere, if only with his grandmother, before page 53). Yet over time, sales have held up.
Moving on a century or so, authors can still get away with an apparently humdrum first sentence, if it implies something’s about to change. Here’s Eleanor Oliphant: “When people ask me what I do—taxi drivers, hairdressers—I tell them I work in an office.” The thick paperback in your hand is festooned with award stickers. Clearly, the next 380 pages aren’t going to dwell only on the malfunctioning photocopier and the daily email avalanche. Similarly, to avoid boring you with data, from now on I’ll give only the author’s name with the quote. The works they come from are easy to look up, and whether you do will be the proof of how enticing these first lines are.
An author can be explicit: “Let us begin with two girls at a dance” (Maggie O’Farrell) or you can begin at the end and work backwards: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well” (Orhan Pamuk).
I tried to emulate this in my first novel – “Adrian Hartman wasn’t expecting to die that day, so he hadn’t thought to make a will.” But Pamuk’s corpse makes a bigger splash. (A note: Der Infinity-Pool was published in German today! If German is your mother tongue and you’d like to review it, please get in touch. Adrian Hartman hatte nicht damit gerechnet…)
Authority with a sense of conflict is good: as Jean Rhys tells us: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.” Or a statement with immediate denial, preferably containing an emotive word: “People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour.” (Marlon James).
Fitting in both terror and desire is daring: “I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.” (Elizabeth Smart). But Jeanette Winterson gets away with dull facts, the better to put a rocket up the following two sentences: “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father.”
Most authors would be wise to use emotive words more sparingly than the genius Smart.
Here’s a selection: blood, as above, and war (here’s Robert Harris who knows how to grab an audience: “Major Picquard to see the Minister of War…”). Also love, heart, sick(ness), death/die, swell, ballroom, gusto, wedding, child, dreams, dawn, waves, not forgetting oddballs with overtones: my personal favourites include boulevard, wisteria/lilies, pitcher/striker, klaxon. Words can combine to kick the reader awake: “All at once the flat was full of noises” (Nicci French) or “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”(George Orwell). If anyone wants to explore this more deeply, the author Kit Whitfield wrote a series on opening lines that leaves this article at the starting blocks.
I’m tempted to follow next time with a post on endings (as a child, I always used to turn to the back and read the last line first. I must have found it reassuring. ) The trouble with that is, it might involve spoilers for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure/excitement/horror of reading my recommendations. Let me know in the comments below whether you’d like me to go ahead anyway, and meanwhile I’ll leave you with the last word, as used by Rossini. I think we’ll have to call it a Rossini Cop Out, but the music is sublime. “Breathe after men”, was the conductor’s instruction to the sopranos. Maybe it does have something in common with Fifty Shades after all. Start on page 77 and sing: Amen. Amen. A-a–amen. Amen. A-a-a-a-m-e-e-en, men. Amen (repeat and enjoy for 8 minutes 30 seconds, and you can see us in action on October 20th).
©Jessica Norrie 2018
About Jessica Norrie
Jessica Norrie studied French literature at Sussex University, and trained as a teacher at Sheffield. Then she wandered into parenthood, told her now grown up children stories, and heard theirs. A qualified translator, she worked on an eclectic mix of material, from health reports on racehorses to harrowing refugee tales. She taught, full time, part time, adults, children, co-authored a text book and ran teacher training. In 2008 she was inspired with the idea for “The Infinity Pool” and it appeared as a fully fledged novel in 2015. Meanwhile she sings soprano and plays the piano, walks in the forest and enjoys living in and using London. She looks forward to writing more in the future.
About the Book.
In this thoughtful novel set on a sun-baked island, Adrian Hartman, the charismatic director of the Serendipity holiday community, is responsible for ensuring the perfect mindful break, with personal growth and inner peace guaranteed. People return year after year to bare their souls. For some, Adrian IS Serendipity. But Adrian disappears, and with him goes the serenity of his staff and guests, who are bewildered without their leader. The hostility of the local villagers is beginning to boil over. Is their anger justified or are the visitors, each in a different way, just paranoid?
As romance turns sour and conflict threatens the stability of both communities, everyone has to find their own way to survive. This evocative story explores the decisions of adults who still need to come of age, the effect of well-intentioned tourism on a traditional community, and the real meaning of getting away from it all.
One of the recent reviews for the book
Well-written and acutely observed on 14 December 2017
Jessica Norrie’s novel, set on a sun-drenched island somewhere in the Mediterranean, examines the personalities and pitfalls encountered on the sort of package holiday that offers holistic life-skills and self-improvement courses. While practising yoga and suchlike activities, guests at the Serendipity resort, together with staff and, from time to time, local villagers, confront social, personal and philosophical challenges.Norrie has a confident narrative voice and a shrewd and sympathetic view of human nature, which makes her account of the goings-on at Serendipity entertaining as well as thought-provoking.
The central character is absent for much of the book: this means that the reader builds up a picture of him through the thoughts and observations of other characters, like a photographic negative – he is defined by his impact on others. When he re-emerges in his own right, his condition is so altered that we learn about other people from their decidedly contrasting (and sometimes unattractive) reactions.
The prose is occasionally lyrical – as a swimmer emerges from a pool, “The water softly shifted to a forgiving stillness” – and consistently accessible. The author is very good on the strains inherent in a globalized culture. The gulf between Serendipity’s staff and guests on the one hand and the local community on the other sours into violence, which may not be entirely surprising since, as one of the resort’s denizens observes, “Our food and our water supply are better than theirs, so we don’t eat in their restaurants or buy their fruit, except in town where it’s so touristy; most of us don’t even try to speak their language; we don’t talk to them when they come to our bar; we expect them to put up with us sunbathing naked on the beach in front of their grandmothers – and then we go on about how beautiful the country is and how fascinating the local traditions are.”
The author also has a clear-eyed view of the reality beneath picturesque Mediterranean society. A young woman considers “meeting and marrying some local man and giving birth within the time honoured local conventions, kicking just a little against restrictions on her sex because that was what each new generation did, then in turn chivvying her own daughters and unconditionally adoring her sons.”
The Infinity Pool is a well-written and acutely observed examination of diverse lives.
Read some of the many excellent reviews and buy the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jessica-Norrie/e/B01CEUZF26
and on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Pool-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B011RA8QZW
Find more reviews on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3270629.Jessica_Norrie
Connect to Jessica
My thanks again to Jessica Norrie for giving us something to think about. And congratulations on the release of her book in German.
As a writer that first line has always been the most difficult to get down on paper. Perhaps because we are all aware that it will be the first thing read by a reader we wish to engage as quickly as possible.
I vividly remember reading Moby Dick at about 13 years old and thinking how magical this book was going to be when I read the first line…
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
—Moby Dick by Herman Melville
How about you let Jessica and I know what your favourite opening line is and from which book and if you would like to find out more about final lines of books. They too carry a great deal of weight.
Thanks for dropping in and look forward to hearing from you. Sally