Opening gambits

Can you really tell how good a novel is from its first chapter? How about from its first sentence or two? John Walsh invites you to identify these openings, and then to compose your own for the chance to win a superb prize
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Like first dates, the first chapters of classic novels offer exciting, tantalising yet strangely unsatisfying experiences. They introduce you to an emotional world that's different from any you've encountered before. They tell you things, unguardedly, sometimes in a confessional rush, but you can't be sure you're hearing the truth. They baffle you a little, flirt with you a bit, string you along for a while, then depart with shocking abruptness, leaving you hungry for more, and uncertain whether what you're feeling is love or just infatuation...

Like first dates, the first chapters of classic novels offer exciting, tantalising yet strangely unsatisfying experiences. They introduce you to an emotional world that's different from any you've encountered before. They tell you things, unguardedly, sometimes in a confessional rush, but you can't be sure you're hearing the truth. They baffle you a little, flirt with you a bit, string you along for a while, then depart with shocking abruptness, leaving you hungry for more, and uncertain whether what you're feeling is love or just infatuation...

So, how much of a favour is W H Smith, the bookshop chain, doing us in publishing a collection of "Little Reads" - the first chapters of the 100 novels in the BBC's "Big Read" promotion (which is set to stretch all through the summer and autumn)? First chapters should be like the first taste of a long, perfect drink, the first hit of an addictive drug. From the opening, we are to infer the power of the whole, as though from the flavour of the mushroom we can somehow appreciate the whole banquet.

Literature often doesn't work like that. James Joyce's Ulysses may be the 20th-century's finest novel, but its opening pages - concerning Stephen Dedalus's intellectual musings in a Martello Tower on a Dublin beach, which he shares with two student friends - convey little of the gamey narrative that's to follow once we meet Leopold Bloom in Chapter 4. The opening chapter of John Fowles's The Magus gives us a bumptious piece of autobiography from the narrator, Nicholas Urfe, but doesn't hint at the 600 pages of Greek-island mystification that lie ahead.

Only dystopian, or alternative-life novels, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World, cram the front window with their best produce, keen to establish the nature of their futuristic state from the first line.

Can you tell how good, how vivid, how gripping, how moving a novel will be from its beginning? Today, we offer you the even more tantalising pleasure of the Opening Line - taken from 50 of the 100 books in contention. Some are achingly overfamiliar ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."); some perversely uninformative ("I write this sitting in the kitchen sink"). All are the openings of books that sold in umpteen thousands, and made their authors rich and famous and nationally treasured.

Can you identify which lines open which book? And having done so, can you write your own ideal opening sentences for an unpublished classic? The Independent is giving away a set of the Big Read Top 100 for the most inspired entry.

1 If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

2 The Boulevard de Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens.

3 When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

4 On February 24, 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples. As usual, a coastal pilot immediately left the port, sailed hard by the Château d'If, and boarded the ship between the Cap de Morgiou and the island of Riou.

5 "You too will marry a boy I choose," said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

6 The boy's name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church. The roof had fallen in long ago, and an enormous sycamore had grown on the spot where the sacristy once stood.

7 When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.

8 It was love at first sight.

9 Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.

10 Marygreen did not change in sixteen years. It had changed little enough in the past two hundred.

11 Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.

12 Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, "That afternoon when I met so-and-so... was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon."

13 I was born in the city of Bombay... once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.

14 A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.

15 May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.

16 Does such as thing as "the fatal flaw", that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does.

17 I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.

18 1801 - I have just returned from a visit to my landlord - the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country!

19 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

20 "I have been here before," I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool's-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer...

21 The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

22 A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.

23 We're twins. I'm Ruby. She's Garnet. We're identical. There's very few people who can tell us apart.

24 The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.

25 It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

26 I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.

27 In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here.

28 Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

29 The house was named "The Cave". It was a large old-fashioned three-storied building standing in about an acre of ground, and situated about a mile outside the town of Mugsborough.

30 Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.

31 Current theories on the creation of the Universe state that, if it was created at all and didn't just start, as it were, unofficially, it came into being between ten and twenty thousand million years ago.

32 To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

33 The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it "the Riddle House", even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.

34 Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

35 There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There was once a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

36 I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy.

37 The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means - it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

38 There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

39 Mrs Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place...

40 All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

41 In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

42 When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.

43 I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God...

44 On an exceptionally hot evening in early July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. Bridge

45 Marley was dead: to begin with.

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

47 Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.

48 The primroses were over.

49 "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

50 Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.


1 The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger 2 Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks 3 Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy 4 The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas 5 A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth 6 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho 7 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 8 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 9 Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome 10 Katherine by Anya Seton 11 Ulysses by James Joyce 12 Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden 13 Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie 14 Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck 15 The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy 16 The Secret History by Donna Tartt 17 On the Road by Jack Kerouac 18 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë 19 A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens 20 Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh 21 Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons 22 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 23 Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson 24 Black Beauty by Anna Sewell 25 Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 26 The Magus by John Fowles 27 Perfume by Patrick Süskind 28 Middlemarch by George Eliot 29 The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell 30 The Godfather by Mario Puzo 31 Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman 32 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 33 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling 34 His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman 35 Holes by Louis Sachar 36 I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith 37 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 38 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 39 Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery 40 Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 41 The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald 42 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett 43 A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving 44 Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 45 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 46 Ninety Eighty-Four by George Orwell 47 Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières 48 Watership Down by Richard Adams 49 Little Women by Louisa M Alcott 50 Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Win all 100 of the nation's favourite books

Think you can do better?

Send us - in 50 words or fewer - the opening to your imaginary novel. Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor of The Independent, will pick the best and the winner will receive all 100 of the BBC's Big Read Campaign favourite books, courtesy of WH Smith, which is publishing selected first chapters as "Little Reads".

Send your entries, to arrive by Monday 16 June, to: Opening Gambits, Features Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS

Terms and conditions

Usual Independent competition rules apply; see here. Copyright in all the winning entries belongs to The Independent. The judge's decision is final.