Books Magazine

Let’s Revisit That Opening From The Death Of The Heart

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

I read through your comments on Tuesday’s post in which I gave you the opening to The Death of the Heart and asked for your thoughts on it.

A few highlights:

That passage was written by someone who loves the sound of language. It’s more poetry than prose, and it’s really pretty and very atmospheric. Would probably be lovely to read out loud. I tend to prefer quick, scannable sentences that don’t get in the way of the story, though. I’m not sure I’d enjoy this book. Guess I’m not the high-lit type. – Brandon

That’s a beautiful establishment of time and place. I get the sense that the narrator’s beloved solitude is about to be broken. – Paul

I’m reminded of the first and second paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, where the whole mood of the book is set. (If you want to feel fog, read Bleak House.) Beginnings like this usually “put the frame around the picture” that has yet to unfold. “…swans in slow indignation swam.”: Wow; beautiful. – Lucille

Such gorgeous, meticulous descriptive writing! If I had just opened this book, I’d be pleasantly surprised and would want to read further. When a book opens with action, it might interest me, but it doesn’t tell me much about the author’s style. Heck, most stories written as assignments by kids focus heavily on action and dialog. I’m looking for something else in my reading. -Candiss

It is a beautifully written paragraph. Reading the paragraph once made me want to read it again. When I read the paragraph, the writer made me want to slow down and take in the beauty of the words. It’s almost as if it is a hypnotic trance the language put me in. This is not a writer who gives me an ordinary language. This writer knows that English isn’t just for the popular potboiler but also it is the English of Shakespeare and Dickens and Keats. And it tells me that if I trust her, I may just get something special. – Don Royster

I would know that the novel was written a while ago, when readers had more patience. – Dennis Fischman

I agree with all of you. Can I do that?

I think that paragraph, with all its imagery, is beautifully written. I agree with Brandon when he said “it’s more poetry than prose, and it’s really pretty and atmospheric.”

However, an opener like that also makes me suspicious, because a book that opens like that tells me this might be a writer who loves description over plot. It tells me the pacing of this novel might be slow. It tells me I might have another Virginia Woolf on my hands.

That said, for those of you worried about the entire novel being like that, it does pick up. I’m about 100 pages in, and Bowen is moving the story along, slightly. It’s very much a conversation-driven story with a lot of backstory in the early pages.

You can’t really judge a book by its first paragraph, but I think most of us are mature enough readers to not do that. However, you can judge the first paragraph for what it is. Those opening lines certainly set the stage and give you a sense for the author’s style.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I might have some trouble reading Elizabeth Bowen, but we’ll see. Like I said, the story begins moving a little more in those early pages. I’m just praying I don’t have another Possession on my hands.

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