So much of our reading experience is defined by what we encounter on the first page of a book. Allegra Hyde in this LitHub essay calls it love at first sentence – a feeling that every reader is familiar with. Opening lines can spur an instant interest, a buildup, and an excitement to discover the story. They are gateways into the world a book aims to create.
This week, on our third birthday, our team sat down to reflect on our favourite book openings. We ended up with a diverse and interesting assortment of books. Read on to find out what each team member picked and why!
Click the titles to go to the book pages, and get your copies from Champaca.
“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”
When I read this line, I thought, "Such a relief to start with the end of the world!" We then spend time building the characters and not moving towards an inevitable apocalypse like many novels do, but away from it, backwards and forwards - exploring relationships with the people and the land.
Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa, Robert M. Sapolsky
“I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.”
This first line resonated with me because I was looking at bees in Kenya when I read this book, and I thought, “Yes, that’s true. I always wanted to be a tree, and here I am being a bee."
"Annihilation of caste is an eighty-three-year old text of a speech that was never delivered. When I first read it I felt as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows. Reading Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar bridges the gap between what most Indians are schooled to believe in and the reality we experience everyday of our lives."
For me, the first line of the book perfectly encapsulated how I felt after reading it. It was as though a window had opened in my mind or curtains were pushed open in a dark room, flooding the mind with the bright sunshine of clarity and liberation. Arundhati Roy, through her very compelling writing (no surprises there!) made me unlearn and relearn history from a different lens. At the end of the book, I wished that I had read it earlier.
"Studying Zoology made me feel like a sad misfit. Not because I loved spiders, enjoyed cutting up dead thingsI’d found by the side of the roador would glady root around in animal faeces for clues as to what their owners had eaten.All of my fellow students shared the curious kinks, so there was no shame there.No, the source of my disquiet was my sex being femalemeant just one thing: I was a loser."
At a time when women are yet again fighting for reproductive rights, zoologist and author Lucy Cooke argues that nature is inherently pro-choice. It was fascinating to read about female lizards that store and select sperm, pandas that self-absorb foetuses, and ducks that thwart sexual aggression from drakes. Did you know that nature has a built-in female agency? We know so little about nature because mainstream education conditions the mind in devastating ways. Mindblown by the book, I was left wondering why as women we still have to persist and fight for our rights?
"Some nights, if I’m sleeping on my own, I still dream about Whitethorn House."
The Likeness begins with Detective Cassie Maddox’s dream. This sets us up for a novel that is less driven by plot twists and shocking reveals, but instead geared towards introspection and careful characterisation. We see the inner workings of Cassie’s mind as she uncovers mysteries that seem far too close to her personal life for comfort. Tana French’s focus on the personal makes the mystery matter even more – instead of reading events as they happen, we see how they affect Cassie, and in turn, how her choices affect them. In revisiting The Likeness, I was caught by its echo of the first line of another favourite of mine, Rebecca – also a gothic-esque tale with an imposing house, beginning with the line Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again!
"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead."
I could not bring this down to just one line! This paragraph, when I first read it, felt like a gut punch. The delightful creepiness of its narrator, nicknamed Merricat, is revealed to us, and with such unexpected humour – “I could have been born a werewolf, but I must be content with what I had”! She is drawn to unusual things, counts things in threes, and often sidesteps the important points – like her entire family being dead. This paragraph gives us a glimpse into one of my favourite unreliable narrators’ minds – young Merricat, who carries her own strange form of witchiness throughout this novel.
"There are many congruities between the saw-edged palmyra karukku and my own life. Not only did I pick up the scattered palmyra karukku in the days when I was sent out to gather firewood, scratching and tearing my skin as I played with them; but later they also became the embryo and symbol that grew into this book."
"It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early the next morning."
These lines intrigued me by the possibilities that lay ahead with the eclipse. What awaited me was a sense of absolute delight at discovering the gorgeous essays. This paragraph embodies the blend of outdoor description and inner journeys that characterises Annie Dillard’s writing.
"At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain."
If there is one book that will have me cackling and happy in a few seconds, it is this one. It not only has my favourite silly character Emsworth, but also the bespectacled Baxter, and Psmith, who always leaves me wishing I could have a silent alphabet in my name. Nothing of consequence happens in this book and I hope that brings you delight in these terrible times.
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
“October, 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widowmakers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles, as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits. Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer.”
Blending theory with non-fiction is a very American thing these days, but this is the most perfect version of that genre. Nelson takes her relationship with her partner, in all its intimacy, privacy and fervour, and elevates it into a meditation on what it means to be queer, to desire, to create families, and how we create meanings of all these things.
"The Snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston."
These lines felt eerie and instantly transported me. The book begins by establishing the narrator, Richard, as the suspect of a crime. The story follows Richard and his elite classmates as they are introduced to new and exciting ways of thinking about the world, under the guidance of their charismatic classics professor. But it doesn't take them long to arrive in the grey zone of their morality where their conscience is put to test. Moving away from the usual whodunit murder mysteries, Donna Tartt puts forth a searing inspection of guilt, class, envy, betrayal and how steeped they are in our social circles.
“Don't get me wrong: I love the restaurant business. Hell, I'm still in the restaurant business—a lifetime, classically trained chef who, an hour from now, will probably be roasting bones for demi-glace and butchering beef tenderloins in a cellar prep kitchen on lower Park Avenue.”
I loved the first few lines of this book because it instantly acquainted me with Bourdain's snarky, sometimes crass, and almost obscene tone of writing. In this memoir, he maps his own culinary career and offers a gritty behind the scenes of the restaurant world – from unreasonable working hours, to terrible pay, and dangerous working conditions.