46 Great Opening Lines: 1

At dusk they pour from the sky.

Opening line, All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

There’s a chair at the kitchen table that I sit on for hours some days. Reading my own work forwards and backwards – backwards is a trick I learned in translation school – I’m forever searching for better ways to say everything. To get an editor’s tick, I have to stay on the chair. So I stay until the job’s done, or until life interferes.

Right now, a book of French fairy tales keeps me here. The repetitive acts of translating, reading, editing and reading again, in the hope of arriving at the perfect story, are driving me into an unproductive blankness. So here I am, writing on this blog, writing just for the distraction of it, analysing what makes writing work well.

My story has to make it further than an editor’s slush pile, and one element, more than any other, is the lure: the very first line. If it’s not great, he might not read the second.

Once, because I was 54 years old, I wrote 54 blog posts about opening lines (click the category link…). It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise that taught me a lot. Now, as I have in life, I’m going on from 54 to see how many more I can find. It won’t be simple, for not all the stories on my bookshelves begin with a great opener. But I’ll challenge myself even further, now and then, to find great translated opening lines. You know, the sort of oft-quoted line such as “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Today I won’t begin with translation but with a novel originally written in English. I found this great opener that immediately had me hooked in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, on a page entitled ‘Leaflets’:

At dusk they pour from the sky.

The story is set in World War Two in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Fascinating. A page-turner. Great to read aloud.

Saint-Malo, Brittany, France, image courtesy  CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183293

It shouldn’t be hard to get to 100 (blog posts that is…). I’ll write about great opening lines whenever I need a break, which happens every few days! Please tell me if you know of any yourself!

 

Header credit: Jean-Christophe Windland, on Wikimedia Commons

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Weekly photo challenge: Names

It is said that the department store Whiteaway Laidlaw & Co. was often nicknamed Right-away & Paid-for, since they accepted only cash and offered no credit. It was also known simply as Whiteaways and became a household name in India, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai during the first half of the 20th century, as well as in other British colonised cities like Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, seen here in these wartime photos.

Whiteaway Laidlaw department store, Nairobi, Kenya, c1941
East African Standard building on the corner, Whiteaway Laidlaw department store on the right, Delamere Ave, Nairobi, Kenya, c1941 (from my father’s WWII album)

The store was founded by a Scotsman, Robert Laidlaw, in 1882 after he had lived in India for 20 years. He was not just an entrepreneur but also a philanthropist and British politician. He died in 1915 in London, but his emporium continued until 1962. It imported and sold household goods and was also a tailoring business, selling products that appealed to Europeans and wealthy locals. As advertised on the store sign in Mombasa, they were drapers and “Complete Outfitters”.

Whiteaway Laidlaw department store, Mombasa, Kenya, c1941
Whiteaway Laidlaw department store, Mombasa, Kenya, c1941 (from my father’s WWII album)

Kenya was then a British colony engaged in defending itself against Italian Ethiopia (created in 1936) on its northern border. Kenya herself contributed a great number of men to fight for the British colonial Military: the King’s African Rifles. The Italians were defeated in November 1941 during my father’s period in North Africa. Hence these photos in his album.

I’ve been looking at these old photos since I was a small small child and have often wondered why two photos feature the same franchise of Whiteaways. Perhaps my father bought some outfits here. Apparently the store catered for shoppers with a small purse, which would therefore have attracted soldiers. Thanks to WordPress for challenging me to find out who Whiteaway Laidlaw were.

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