Whose first line is it anyway? Book Festival authors and their favourite opening lines

This article is from 2019

Whose first line is it anyway?

Mariella Frostrup / credit: Kate Martin

Some authors appearing at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival tell us their favourite opening to a novel

We've all picked up a book and either put it back down again or kept on reading after giving it the first-line test. What is it that makes a stirring beginning to a book? We asked a bunch of authors at this year's Book Festival to pick their own favourite opening to a novel.

Will Eaves: The Inheritors by William Golding

"Lok was running as fast as he could."

That opening sentence is as light and troubling as the rest of the remarkable novel that follows. Lok is a Neanderthal, as unaware of the true motivations of the New Men in the woods as he is innocent of awareness itself. The book describes and dramatises his species' limits, and also the beauty of an enfolding sensory relation to nature and time that is lost to us, Lok's evolutionary successors. But we will succumb, too. One day, soon enough, we will have run as far, and as fast, as we could.
16 Aug (with Jessie Greengrass), 11am.

Mariella Frostrup: The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie's

"I have lost count of the days that have passed since I fled the horrors of Vasco Miranda's mad fortress in the Andalusian mountain-village of Benengeli; ran from death under cover of darkness and left a message nailed to the door."

I love a book with a first line that completely hooks you and although plenty fit the bill my favourite is in Salman Rushdie's arguably most over-looked book. It creates so many questions that as a reader you are immediately impatient for answers. It's impossible to read that sentence and not be swept away in the safe company of an author who's probably our most engaging living storyteller.
21 Aug, 5pm; 22 Aug (Open Book Radio 4 recording), 10am, free.

Whose first line is it anyway?

Jenny Lindsay / credit: Ryan McGoverne

Charles Fernyhough: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

From its dazzling, disarming opening, this almost perfect novel revels in how literature can upend us morally by throwing us into unimaginable points of view. In creating sympathy for a monster, Nabokov's genius is to turn Humbert Humbert's tragic, wrong love into one of the greatest tales of passion ever told.
21 Aug (with Colin Grant, Will Storr and Marina Warner), 4pm; 22 Aug (with Will Storr), 3.45pm, £8 (£6).

Jenny Lindsay: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

I first read these words aged 16 and this novel has informed a great deal of my work ever since. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on political literature as part of my Politics degree, reinvented the character of Julia for my first stage-show, Ire & Salt, and am currently working on a series of work on Julia and Winston, updating both central characters for today's political climate. How language confers thought has always fascinated me and is also an underlying theme of my current work This Script.
20 Aug, 8.30pm, £8 (£6).

Whose first line is it anyway?: EIBF authors and their favourite opening lives

Nadine Aisha Jassat / credit: Chris Scott

Nadine Aisha Jassat: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."

This opening has stayed with me since my teenage years. I love its rhythm, and how it instantly captures the dark humidity of Esther's bell jar, and the sense of Plath looking down on the story as if it were the past itself and, with her poetic voice, submersing us in it.
Spark Theatre, George Street, 17 Aug (with Mariam Khan and Amna Saleem), 7.15pm; 23 Aug (with Anthony Anaxagorou), 7pm, Pay What You Can.

Samantha Shannon: Hild by Nicola Griffith

"The child's world changed late one afternoon, though she didn't know it. She lay at the edge of the hazel coppice, one cheek pressed to the moss that smelt of worm cast and the last of the sun, listening: to the wind in the elms, rushing away from the day, to the jackdaws changing their calls from "Outward! Outward!" to "Home now, home!", to the rustle of the last frightened shrews scuttling under the layers of leaf fall before the owls began their hunt. From far away came the indignant honking of the geese as the goosegirl herded them back inside the wattle fence, and the child knew, in the wordless way that three-year-olds reckon time, that soon Onnen would come and find her and Cian and hurry them back."

Griffith achieves so much in these three sentences. She introduces the protagonist, captures the rhythms of life in seventh-century Britain, and invokes the senses with her finely-wrought descriptions of nature.
Spark Theatre, George Street, 20 Aug (with Holly Black), 8.45pm.

Whose first line is it anyway?: EIBF authors and their favourite opening lives

Christopher Brookmyre / credit: Chris Close

Christopher Brookmyre: Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington

"Something really weird was happening in the Gorbals – from the battered hulk of the Planet Cinema in Scobie Street, a deepsea diver was emerging."

I picked up this book reluctantly at first, bracing myself for a grim tale of 60s Glaswegian poverty and deprivation. This intriguing opening told me I was in for something quite different. It sets the tone perfectly for a book that is boundlessly inventive, surreal in ways that are bizarrely plausible, and constantly subverting expectations.
12 Aug, 8.30pm; 17 Aug (as Ambrose Parry with Marisa Haetzman), 8.30pm.

All events at Charlotte Square Gardens and priced £12 (£10) unless stated.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

The world’s largest public celebration of the written word takes place in the first UNESCO City of Literature at the Edinburgh College of Art. As well as leading Scottish and international authors, the varied programme always manages to cover poets, politicians, historians, journalists and children's authors.