In Praise of the Slow Beginning

I wanted to take a slightly different approach to beginnings in this blog. We have, over the past months, discussed openings that plunge us into the heart of the action or hint at mysterious events to come. We’ve highlighted those that start with clever dialogue or intriguing characters, and we’ve pointed out how the author, with a few well-constructed sentences, manages to grab us and throw us into the thick of things straight off.

But that’s not how all great books start out. Some take their time. Establish a mood. Set a scene. They place the reader in a particular locale or state of mind before embarking on the story proper. And as a reader who’s always been fond of the slow beginning, I wanted to highlight a few well-loved books that open that way.

     “The taxi, an old Rover smelling of old cigarette smoke, trundled along the empty, country road at an unhurried pace. It was early afternoon at the very end of February, a magic winter day of bitter cold, frost, and pale, cloudless skies. The sun shone, sending long shadows, but there was little warmth in it, and the ploughed fields lay hard as iron. From the chimneys of scattered farmhouses and small stone cottages, smoke rose, straight as columns, up into the still air, and flocks of sheep, heavy with wood and incipient pregnancy, gathered around feeding troughs stuffed with fresh hay.
     Sitting in the back of the taxi, gazing through the dusty window, Penelope Keeling decided that she had never seen the familiar countryside look so beautiful.”

Many of you will recognize that as the opening to THE SHELL SEEKERS; the book that put Rosamund Pilcher on the NYT best seller list. It’s not fast paced or intriguing. It doesn’t ask questions or raise issues. It simply establishes a mood by centering us in a place we’ve never been.

Then we have the opening to THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN, by Kate Morton.

     “It was dark where she was crouched but the little girl did as she’d been told. The lady had said to wait, it wasn’t safe yet, they had to be as quiet as larder mice. It was a game just like hide and seek.
     From behind the wooden barrels the little girl listened. Made a picture in her mind the way Papa had taught her. Men, near and far, sailors she supposed, shouted to one another. Rough, loud voices, full of the sea and its salt. In the distance, bloated ships horns, tin whistles, splashing oars and, far above, grey gulls cawing, wings flattened to absorb the ripening sunlight.”

Although there is more intrigue in this opening, we still feel a strong sense of place and mood established by the author’s skillful use of description and it continues in that vein for several pages.

Lastly, who can forget this atmospheric opening…and please note I’ve taken leave to start two paragraphs in since you would recognize the opening line at once:

     “Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above me like the archway of a church.

Sound familiar? Perhaps if I’d started out with “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” you would recognize it as the opening of REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier.

The slow beginning is, perhaps, an anachronistic form of writing or a style more suited to literary novels or the classics. Maybe in this fast paced age where we’re all in a hurry and time is at a premium, it may even seem a bit boring. But as a reader, I don’t need to be thrown onto the roller coaster every time. Sometimes I like being eased into a story by the author’s skillful use of narrative and description.

A fast train will get you where you’re going, but a scenic one arrives with far more memories in tow.

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