Great Opening Lines

Amazon recently ran a ‘best opening lines’ competition among its readers.

They had to name their favourite opening line from a book.

Topping the poll – as it always does in this particular competition – was Charles Dickens’ opening to his 1840 French Revolution-era novel A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.

This received 29 per cent of the vote.

Close on its tail was George Orwell’s intriguing opening to his bleak dystopian fantasy Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’.

This came second, with 24 per cent of the vote.

And then Harry Potter was 3rd. Setting the scene for the story of the orphan wizard, JK Rowling writes: ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’

22 per cent chose this as their favourite.

Fourth and fifth were the first lines of JM Barrie’s 1904 children’s classic, Peter Pan: ‘All children, except one, grow up’ and JRR Tolkien’s simple opening to The Hobbit: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’.

Sadly, the opening line of my Abbot Peter series didn’t appear in Amazon’s voting, but has its own appeal:

‘Crucified?’ said the hesitant man in the dressing gown.

These are the opening words of A Vicar Crucified.

Though, in truth, great opening lines are not of huge import for me. Closing lines are more the mark of genius.

Like a human life, a book can recover from a slow or difficult start; it can struggle its way into something very good.

But it can’t recover from a poor ending; there’s no way back from that. The sense of dissatisfaction lingers.

As with a human life, a book seeks a homecoming of some sort; after hair-raising adventures, a return to harbour.

Starting a story is the easier task; bringing it home, the more difficult.  

As the Prophetess says to Aeneas, before his terrifying descent into the underworld, ‘Every night and every day, black Pluto’s door stands open wide, but to retrace your steps, and return to the upper air – that is the task, that is the work.’

The Prophetess is not concerned with Aeneas setting out; but with how he will get back: ‘that is the task, that is the work.’

I have just read Silverview, John le Carre’s final book, published posthumously. The great spy writer traded in deception and the shadows, where all was hidden, harsh and hush-hush.

But his final line, from beyond the grave, is a character saying to her boyfriend, ‘And that is the last secret I will keep from you.’

A return to the upper air.