In time for the start of a new academic year, four students tell Indigo about their favourite openings to popular novels.
The Night Circus – Sol Noya
‘The circus arrives without warning.’
It takes a gifted writer to lure a reader in with a five-word sentence, yet Erin Morgenstern makes it seem effortless. The way the first chapter of The Night Circus immediately captured my attention is the reason that it has become one of my favourite beginnings to a novel. In this four-page chapter, Morgenstern shows off her great talent for description; the first chapter is written in the second person, which heightens the feeling of being in Morgenstern’s ‘Cirque des Rêves’.
I’m very partial to novels that take their time with detailed worldbuilding, and Morgenstern delivers from the first paragraph, temporarily making the reader another character in the book attending the circus for the first time. She takes her time walking the reader through the feeling of waiting for the circus to open and describing the setting in lush detail. This beginning is so evocative that I was immediately transported into her world of magical realism. Not only does Morgenstern describe all the major aspects of her circus in this chapter, she also picks just the right details to describe so as to begin to paint a full picture of the circus in the reader’s mind, perfectly setting the stage for the rest of the novel.
Rebecca – Rhiannon Green
The opening to Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebeccais known for its mysterious and ominous tone: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ It is undoubtedly one of the most iconic opening lines in the history of English literature, managing to set the scene of the novel in a way that plays with both the time and space of the narrative. I especially love this opening chapter as I feel that it vividly paints an image of Manderley – the main setting of the plot – whilst also establishing the dream-like quality that is upheld throughout the entire novel.
The passage itself is rich with detail, with the anonymous narrator upholding a general sense of mystery that is typical of du Maurier’s take on the Gothic genre. Manderley is a ‘secretive and silent’ place, and the narrator walks ‘enchanted’ through its grounds. Above all, the detailed description leaves the reader eager to know the events that unfolded at Manderley. The mentioning of the narrator’s ‘dream’ when in reality they ‘lay many hundred miles away in an alien land’ reveals a self-awareness that is both rare and intriguing, suggesting that this is a novel like no other.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories – Elizabeth Kearney
‘What is the use of stories that aren’t even true?’
This thought-provoking question in the opening chapter of Salman Rushdie’s South Asian Anglophone novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories engages the reader not only with the novel but also with a key debate at the centre of literary study. When the protagonist Haroun asks this provocative question at the beginning of the novel, his father Rashid the town storyteller becomes suddenly unable to continue telling stories. Haroun embarks on a magical quest through exotic Eastern lands accompanied by enchanting creatures in an attempt to find and recover the source of stories so that his father can continue to create stories.
Through its initial question, Harounbecomes a convincing defence for literature and, in particular, Rushdie’s own story writing following the 1988 Satanic Verses controversy. Haroun is the first text Rushdie wrote after TheSatanic Verseswas banned in thirteen Muslim countries, as its depictions of the prophet Muhammad were seen to be blasphemous.
Through this enchanting romance, Rushdie conveys the importance of literature and the truths that it can hold, writing back to those countries that suppressed his own storytelling. In the end Haroun realises the answer to his initial engaging question: ‘He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.’
Beloved – Georgia Bower
When I recently re-read Beloved by Toni Morrison, I found the opening paragraph just as unique and striking as I did the first time. The first two lines, ‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom,’ are especially captivating. Morrison masterfully builds tension by starting with these two enigmatic statements that leave the reader in the dark. With only eight words, Morrison has already conjured up a sinister atmosphere where the supernatural and the real blend into one. The short sentence structure of these opening lines helps to add to the suspense and intrigue that permeate the beginning of this incredible novel.
The first paragraph sets the scene perfectly, conveying how gloomy the characters’ lives are through colour imagery. The omniscient narrator describes Sethe and Denver through the miserable image of being ‘all by themselves in the gray and white house.’ The lack of colour in the characters’ lives is symbolic of the loneliness they face as Sethe and Denver’s lives are defined by the haunted house that they inhabit.
The sheer power of the ghost is not to be underestimated. The ghost dominates the narrative from the very beginning as Sethe’s sons are said to have fled after various spooky occurrences. The reader cannot help but wonder why the ghost feels ‘lively spite’ towards Sethe’s family. The truth behind the haunting is part of a harrowing story that gradually unfolds over the course of the novel, coming to a head once the ghost gains a voice of its own.
Image by Daniel Wehner via Flickr