This week I started my final year at uni. Things could get a little patchy on the blog front from here on in, but I really want to try and keep it going on a regular basis, so hopefully service will be uninterrupted by essays, tutorials, presentations, deadlines, exams….eek. In honour of the new term, I thought I’d look at beginnings in books. Not that this is a great new beginning for me – as a mature student I’ve been here many, many times before, so much more than is necessary. But a beginning it is, and so on we go!
Firstly, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan, 1995). This was Kate Atkinson’s first novel; nowadays she is well-known as the author of the Jackson Brodie novels (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News, Started Early Took My Dog) but this was before she turned her hand to detective fiction. Let us just pause for a minute to consider the BBC trailer for their excellent adaptation of the Brodie novels:
Was that just an opportunity to gratuitously observe the craggily gorgeous and highly talented Jason Isaacs without his top on? Yes it was. (But I do recommend both the books and the TV series). Now back to books. BTSATM is told from the point of view of Ruby, from the moment of her conception. The novel begins:
“I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the punchbowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep – as she often does as such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn’t let that put him off.”
When I was thinking of books to write about for this theme, this is the passage that immediately sprung to mind. I think it’s just brilliant, and such a confident debut. The two word opening sentence is really bold and creates a lively, engaging voice for Ruby. The rest of the paragraph introduces so much about the rest of the story; it’s an enormously skilled piece of writing. Firstly, the fact that it’s narrated from conception, that the foetal Ruby will be able to hear her mother’s thoughts, tells you that the story is not conventional. Secondly, two of the women from Ruby’s family are already introduced, and the story will tell Ruby’s life but also be interwoven with the stories of other women in her family: her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother will all feature in third-person narratives alongside Ruby’s first person tale. Thirdly, although the tale is highly inventive, it is not whimsical, and instead grounded in an earthy realism, as evidenced by Ruby’s unromantic beginnings. And finally, as the end sentence shows, there’s a good dose of humour in there too.
BTSATM won the Whitbread book of the year in 1995, and I hope this beginning has given you a taste of why. As Ruby takes you through the story of her life up to present day (around 1993), her unique voice creates vivid portraits of her family, and why and how things got to be the way they are. All of Kate Atkinson’s novels are highly readable and expertly plotted, I urge you to give her a go.
Secondly, Angela Carter’s second novel, The Magic Toyshop (1967, my copy Virago 1994). Carter was a truly unique, arresting voice in fiction and I don’t always find her writing comfortable, but then I don’t think I’m supposed to. The novel begins:
“The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land. She embarked on a tranced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys, a physiological Cortez, da Gama or Mungo Park. For hours she stared at herself, naked, in the mirror of her wardrobe; she would follow with her finger the elegant structure of her ribcage, where the heart fluttered under the flesh like a bird under a blanket…”
While the opening to BTSATM told you a lot about the novel, I think this opening tells you more about Carter as a writer. She had a skill for making the everyday somewhat disconcerting, and I think the opening line shows this. It states a truism, but you know there’s more happening than is immediately apparent. Carter was concerned with women’s sexuality, but in a way that her characters are not necessarily sexual in response to other people – when others become involved, things become complicated and the sexual response less clear (her novel Love brutally details this type of experience). She often wrote in a magic realist style, and while this isn’t evident in this paragraph, the simile “like a bird under a blanket” demonstrates her odd approach to images, and how unsettling she can be. Although the paragraph appears celebratory, a bird under a blanket is a horrible image of unnatural surroundings, containment and probably death. To put this alongside a 15 year old girl who goes on in the paragraph to laugh “out of sheer exhilaration” at herself is disturbing, and hints at the violence that often lurks in Carter’s worlds.
Needless to say, this adolescent idyll doesn’t last long. That night, Melanie finds out her parents have died in a plane crash, and she and her brother and sister have to move to London to live with her uncle Philip and her aunt Margaret, the latter of whom never speaks. Philip is a tyrant, and owns the toyshop of the title, where he works on puppet shows. Despite the title, this is not a fairytale: “She turned over some of the stock. Repelled yet attracted by the ferocious masks, she finally tried on one or two, but there was no mirror where she could see herself, although she felt peculiarly feline or vulpine according to the mask she wore. They even seemed to smell of wild animals.” Creepy. Carter is not an easy writer, but her inventiveness and intelligence make the challenge worthwhile. If you fancy giving her a go but want something less intense, I recommend her picaresque later novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children. There’s no-one like her.