All writers know that a novel opening should contain a “hook.” Often one thinks of these hooks as unusual premises or shocking first lines, but to my mind a hook can be anything intriguing, whether it is a character, an event, or a turn of phrase, so long as it surprises readers, impresses them, and makes them want to read more. The key is for the author to establish him or herself as someone who can provide an absorbing, often unexpected experience. In this, Embark’s tenth issue, you will find ten excellent examples of openings that draw you in.
As it turns out, the first two openings in this issue both impressed me with their rich and carefully researched settings. In THE DELUGE, by Helen-Rose Andrews, the setting is colonial Kenya in the 1950s, and from the beginning one can sense Andrews’ deep knowledge of the place and time. When the main character, a young white woman hoping to become a doctor, suffers a life-changing injury while driving with her father, I was doubly hooked. THE PATHS OF EXILE, by Pamela Belle, offers a similarly immersive experience, this time in Anglo-Saxon England during the reign of King Alfred. Belle’s vivid evocation of daily life in those times, as well as her main character, an illegitimate woman adopted uneasily into her father’s noble family, captured my imagination.
Closely related to setting is atmosphere, the mood of a story. TIN’S BENDED, by Nina Heiser, offers a wonderfully wistful and dream-like evocation of a New England coastal community at the end of winter. The main character, a mother on her own striving to support her young daughter, finds a house-sitting job in her isolated town—an appropriately lonesome job for this opening’s pervasive tone. HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN, by Beth Ford, presents another lonely character, a divorced Scottish man on the verge of losing the property his family has owned for a century, but what hooked me most in Ford’s opening was the narrative voice, a blend of dark humor and pathos that lured me in from the first paragraph.
Sometimes characters jump instantly into a reader’s mind, thanks to their strength, their oddity, or the force of their personalities. HONEY IN THE MOUTH, by Danusha V. Goska, offers such a character in Madlena Kovarcik, whom we meet first as a child and then as a grown woman hitch-hiking her way through Texas. Her unrelenting determination to engage with the world without losing her own identity is immediately impressive. Similarly captivating is Clara Klein in A SPARROW ON THE HOUSETOP, by Mike Todd. An older woman who has lost her husband and her faith, Clara refuses to leave her home despite an imminent threat of flooding. Her rapid-fire dialogue with the preacher trying to persuade her to leave is a riveting, refreshing example of a woman holding her own.
It’s natural for readers to assume that they know where stories are going, and it’s always pleasing when novel openings defy those expectations. CITIES OF GLASS, by Roger Collins, takes place in the future Age of Transparency and begins with Fitima Anueche, an Afro-Caribbean astrophysicist, returning to her hometown in Trinidad. Even amid the fascinating novelty of her era, what Fitima encounters on her first evening came as an intriguing surprise to me. In THE FABULOUS NOTHING, Avni Shah begins with a familiar premise—a girl lands the lead in a school play—and takes it an unexpected direction that strikingly conveys the character’s unhappiness in her traditionally minded family. Seldom have I encountered a prologue that captures so vividly the overall themes of the book.
Every novel, in one way or another, focuses on relationships, but sometimes a writer depicts a bond between people so believably that it acts as a novel’s hook. This was the case in MY BEAUTIFUL MISTAKE, by Joni MacFarlane, which tells the story of two Canadian women who become nurses in World War II. From the opening pages, a framing scene in which one of these women visits the other in a nursing home, their bond felt urgent and real to me. Similarly engaging relationships can be found in A GIRL CALLED RUMI, by Ari Honarvar, who brings to life a family living in the war-torn city of Shiraz, Iran, in the 1980s. But what first hooked me in this opening was what hooks the nine-year-old protagonist too: an old man telling a story in a dazzling puppet theater.
As you make your way through this issue, I hope you’ll enjoy its varied openings as much as I did, finding in each one a kernel of surprise that grabs your attention and won’t let go.
— Ursula DeYoung, Founding Editor
Table of Contents
THE DELUGE – Helen-Rose Andrews
THE PATHS OF EXILE – Pamela Belle
CITIES OF GLASS – Roger Collins
HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN – Beth Ford
HONEY IN THE MOUTH – Danusha V. Goska
TIN’S BENDED – Nina Heiser
A GIRL CALLED RUMI – Ari Honarvar
MY BEAUTIFUL MISTAKE – Joni MacFarlane
THE FABULOUS NOTHING – Avni Shah
A SPARROW ON THE HOUSETOP – Mike Todd