There are novels which have unforgettable first lines. Like:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen)
“El día en que lo iban a matar, Santiago Nasar se levantó a las 5.30 de la mañana para esperar el buque en que llegaba el obispo.” (Crónica de una muerte anunciada by Gabriel García Márquez).
(“On the day that he was going to be killed, Santiago Nasar got up at 5:30 in the morning to wait for the ship in which the bishop was arriving.” Chronicle of a Death Foretold)
First lines that draw you straight into the story and you never get away again until you finished the book.
There are also novels with unforgettable last lines, of course. Like my particular favourite, the ending of No-one Writes to the Colonel by García Márquez (which I won’t quote here because to appreciate really good last lines you have to read the book).
Generally, books with really good first lines and really good last lines have some pretty impressive stuff in between as well. Not the book of which I’m going to write now, however. The book I read in order to complete my reading challenge of six books from six continents… before the end of this year.
The book in question is Red Strangers by Elspeth Huxley and stands for Africa.
It’s a curious book. It goes under the guise of a novel but it’s more like an anthropological study of the Kikuyu tribe. It comes recommended by the famous Richard Dawkins, no less, who apparently was instrumental in getting it into print again.
Red Strangers describes a period of change in the lives of the Kikuyu through the lives of three members of the same family between 1890 and 1937: a time frame in which the Kikuyu sped from the iron age to the 20th century. You can imagine their bewilderment and the pitfalls. (Or rather, you don’t have to imagine it because it’s all described in great detail.) The ‘red strangers’ referred to in the title are the white colonial masters who turn up about halfway through the book. The story is told entirely through the eyes of the Kikuyu characters with the result that sometimes you have to work out from truly amazing descriptions what they actually talk about. The description of a horse rider certainly threw me!…
If you’re into anthropology or have Kikuyu ancestors, this is a very good book to read. If neither, I wouldn’t particularly recommend it: I failed to be able to develop any interest whatsoever in any of the chief (or even the lesser) characters and if it wasn’t for the reading challenge I probably wouldn’t have bothered to finish it. Although that would have been a great pity because the best part of the book is…
…the closing lines:
“He was glad that God had decided to bless his wives with fertility, now that he had been baptised a Christian. The name of the child, he decided, should be Aeroplane. His wife, he thought, would never be able to pronounce such a difficult word; but educated people would know, and understand.”