Hazel McHaffie

The Brimstone wedding

First lines

What is it that makes us pick up a book and then buy/borrow it? The author’s name? Title? Cover? Back cover blurb? A combination, maybe?

What makes us open the book and having started, keep reading? First line? First page? First chapter?

Books 1Well, last week I told you about Ian Rankin releasing the first line of his new novel. I doubt very much if that will ever become an oft-quoted introduction, but it led me to thinking about famous first lines and what it is that makes them memorable. Ones that spring instantly to mind are …

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)

Marley was dead, to begin with. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

But I rather think that some of these have acquired legendary status, not just for their literary merit, but because they evoke fond memories of classic favourites.

There are other first lines, less well known, that instantly grabbed my attention and made me want to read on to see what the book was all about. If this author could write a few words this well, I’d be happy to commit a day or two/a week or two to finding out what he/she has to tell me.Books 2

It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Iain M Banks, The Crow Road)
Not an everyday occurrence, grandmothers exploding, so intriguing. How? Why? Where? When? What happened next?

The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years. (Nicholas Evans, The Loop)
Who’s been slaughtered? Who’s smelling their deaths today? Is it true?

I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story. (John Grisham, The Racketeer)
A story I want to hear. Why? What’s he done? How will he be treated? Is he guilty?

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this is a second conception. (James Bradley, The Resurrectionist)
Makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it? Who are these people condemned to such a death?

Books 3When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. (Harlan Coben, No Second Chance)
Was there a second one? Who was shooting him? Why was it his daughter who sprang to mind?

The clothes of the dead won’t wear long. (Barbara Vine, The Brimstone Wedding)
There is so much wrapped up in this thought that transcends this one story, but I want to know what happened to make it an apposite statement.

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. (Sarah Waters, Fingersmith)
So, why has it changed? What happened when she was Susan Trinder? What has transpired since?

I’m now thinking hard about my own first line. To date I’ve tended to concentrate more on getting the first page gripping. That introductory bit is so important; if you haven’t hooked your reader from the outset, he/she’s probably not going to bother to read on. I’ve actually often written the beginning last, spent ages refining it, for that very reason. I’ve sometimes even added a prologue to bring all the key intriguing elements to the fore and make the reader want to know how everything was resolved.

But first line? That’s a different level of demand. Fascinating to ponder.


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The Brimstone Wedding

I am seriously allergic to numbers. Yep, seriously. Tax returns … sessions with the bank manager … they freak me out. So having just dealt with both within the space of two weeks (horrors!), I felt I’d earned a wee treat.

Work in progressAn ideal moment, then, to turn to a book that’s been in my tbr pile for ages: Barbara Vine‘s The Brimstone Wedding. A wonderful change from the teen fiction on anorexia I’ve been doggedly ploughing through; writing of a different calibre altogether. And nothing whatever to do with ethics or medicine or heart-searching. Pure escapism. Add to that a deadline for a piece of knitting and I’m a really happy bunny: I can knit and read together all day without flagging –  shame about mealtimes and the need for sleep.

Most people know this author better as Ruth Rendell (now Baroness Rendell of Babergh) crime writer extraordinaire, creator of Chief Inspector Wexford. As Barbara Vine, she has developed the psychological thriller, exploring the minds of the perpetrators of crimes; the whydoneit perhaps more than the whodoneit. And she has excelled in both spheres, winning numerous prestigious literary awards.

The Brimstone Wedding tells the story of two women: Stella, an elegant and intelligent resident in Middleton Hall Care Home, and Jenny/Genevieve, a young care assistant who detects a mystery in Stella’s past which intrigues her. They develop a special bond and Stella starts to share some of her story … and her life … and her possessions.

The two women’s voices narrate the tale (occasionally they’re a little too similar, I thought, making it tricky to know who was speaking until they dropped names or events in to locate themselves). Though they’re from different generations, constrained by different moral climates, their personal life experiences overlap in several ways: both were in unsatisfactory marriages, both had secret lovers, both contemplated leaving their husbands, both had traumatic experiences, both used a secret hideaway for their trysts (the same one as it happens). Their shared bonds draw them ever closer. That their lives are also linked in a uniquely special way, only emerges at the end of the book, and if the clues existed, I confess, I missed them.

The pace of the book is slow and gentle, well suited to the sedate life of an elderly woman dying of cancer in an old folks’ home. And the tiny text is tightly packed onto 312 pages so it’s a fairly substantial read. The characters are beautifully drawn, all flawed and very believable. We see the inadequate husbands through the eyes of their spouses, and share their frustrations and despair. The other, more dashing other-people’s-husbands who beckon them into illicit affairs, take us in too, with their soft words, their romantic gestures, their promises. I didn’t see their feet of clay either initially.

Both woman also carry psychological baggage. Genevieve has inherited a strong belief in superstitions passed on through several generations which constrain her behaviour (a characteristic that adds real depth to her portrayal). Stella is haunted by terrible secrets from her past and struggles to share them before her death, committing the worst to audiotapes only to be heard when she’s no longer around to witness the reactions. We know from the outset about the dark shadows, but we don’t know the how or the why; it’s this tension that drives the narrative.

Vine is an undisputed master storyteller and I was engrossed. It wasn’t simply a matter of the book being so much better than my recent reading – well, it’s in a different league; unfair to compare them. No, it was that this tale also touched familiar chords. I spend a fair amount of time in real life with elderly people; I volunteer in a residential home; I watch with admiration the affection staff develop for those they care for. And this story rang true. As did the author’s perceptive comments about relationships, marriage, careers, loyalty, ambition. She really understands people. Finished: book and JacketI didn’t need the suspense of an ultimate frightening revelation to keep my eyes glued and my needles clacking until both jacket and book were finished.

‘Tender’, ‘horrifying’, exquisite’, ‘powerful’, ‘chilling’, ‘moving’ … they’ve all been applied to The Brimstone Wedding. They’re all true. A treat indeed. And all thoughts of numbers are now successfully driven from my head; I am once again sanguine about life. Maybe this year I will complete my tax return in April, avoid all that build up of apprehension. Maybe.


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