It has become something of a truism among writers’ groups and in articles offering advice on how best to secure the services of an agent or publisher that the opening of a novel is everything — the ne plus ultra of the writer’s armoury. If one can knock the reader’s socks off with the first few lines one is almost there. So I’ve decided to conduct an experiment. Before reading any of these four first novels to the end, I shall compare and mark their opening couple of pages.
First in line (and chosen entirely at random) is Michela Wrong’s Borderlines. Miss Wrong (you’ll find no silly jokes from me here) has been writing non-fiction books about Africa for years. This is her first try at a novel. She opens with a scene on a plane which stands in for her heroine’s life story. A woman falls asleep in her seat. She awakes to a bump. At first she thinks the plane has struck something and that they are about to crash. But no. They are merely landing. This false assumption sums up her life. ‘Some people are just a bit slow to catch on,’ she reassures herself. A good opening. Makes one want to read on. Ten out of ten.
Next is Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Set in late 19th-century England, this is the debut of a graduate from the famous creative writing course (think this year’s Man Booker prize longlist nominee Anne Enright, and veteran Booker hands Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan) at my old alma mater, the University of East Anglia. Pulley begins conventionally enough — no natty little prologues for her. She describes, in spare prose, the Home Office Telegraphy Department. Nothing much happens. There are no surprises. One supposes she does this on purpose, the better to introduce her first main character, Thaniel Steepleton, whose own colours (Steepleton is a synesthete who sees musical notation, for instance, in the shape of colours) are ‘mainly grey’. Also ten out of ten — despite, or perhaps because of, the very lack of fireworks.
Number three is Benjamin Johncock’s The Last Pilot. Johncock’s prologue introduces us to Jim Harrison, one of the chosen few lunar astronauts; Harrison is named, one suspects, after the sublime author of Sundog and Legends of the Fall, whose younger self Johncock oddly resembles. At a motel near Cape Canaveral we see Harrison pass up the easy, albeit conventional delights of a 19-year-old moonstruck groupie. Why? Because he is happily married. And yes, it works. Men can, and do, pass up dead certainties. The prose is tense and sounds convincingly American, though the author is in fact British (Lee Child has pulled off a similar trick). Reading Johncock one is reminded of Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy and especially of James Salter’s The Hunters, which can’t be a bad thing. Ten out of ten.
Finally comes the American writer Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things. We begin with an embittered mistress writing to the wife of her ex-lover five months after the affair has fizzled out. And she really goes for it. Details of the family indiscretions her lover shared with her during their pillow talk; places of assignation; printed emails that were originally going to be burned in the bathtub, but which the ex-mistress changes her mind about. Yes, another ten out of ten.
So these four authors have learned their lessons well. Apart from Pulley, all of them virtually force one to read further — and the fact that Pulley doesn’t may be all to her credit. So how do the books themselves match up to those crucial opening chapters?
Borderlines is a beautifully judged and elegantly written semi-comic rite-of-passage novel that delivers on every level. Wrong knows her subjects — Africa and women — extremely well and addresses both with a marked lack of spleen. I thoroughly recommend her novel. Interested readers might also like to revisit some of the excellent articles she wrote for the New Statesman a few years ago.
Serious money has been spent on the cover of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. I should know. I remember the howls of anguish from my own publishers when a decision was made at board level to give one of my novels a cut-out jacket. There is a danger in these cases that one is left chasing sales to make up for stratospheric production costs. But Pulley should fare OK on that score. She has written an elegantly fey novel which mixes arch modernity with a nuanced understanding of the high Victorian period in which it is set. The Japanese theme that runs through the book (and which also ran through Victorian England) adds a welcome touch of enchantment to her occasionally capricious narrative.
The Last Pilot parallels the ups and downs of ordinary, terrestrial married life with the push and pull of the extraordinary, extra-terrestrial Mercury and Gemini space missions. The two are not as unalike as they may seem. Each requires leadership, dialogue and integrity. And in the final analysis, what in life is more important: public service or private commitment? The night has its own laws, as a friend of mine once opined. Johncock navigates the line between what we know and what we think we know with practised ease, and his mastery of the American idiom is perfect. This is a first-rate novel by a major new talent.
Julia Pierpont writes about the effect that adult immaturity can have on children, and the traps our sexuality — and the deals we make with our lost ambitions — lay in store for us. Wronged wife Deb’s 11-year-old daughter, Kay, stumbles upon the box of emails so succinctly described in the novel’s prologue. Kay passes them on to her 15-year-old brother, Simon, who takes them straight to their mother. By the time Deb reads them, therefore, the damage is already done. Pierpont is particularly good at the humdrum quality of sexual betrayal — how commonplace our emotions can be, how candidly selfish our urges. In one chapter she manages a clever switch, showing husband Jack’s seduction of… whom? His mistress? No. His future wife. But the reader has learned the underlying lesson: we are all guilty as hell.