Some believe that there are few things which are more important in a novel than its opening line, especially since it sets the tone for the rest of a book. Charles Dickens excelled in crafting a memorable opening line, and I especially appreciate those of his creations that have humour/irony in them, which contrast things or introduce curious facts. Below are my ranked personal favourites.
I. A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
II.Dombey and Son: “Dombeysat in the corner of the darkened room in the greatarm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”
In this classic story, Arthur Clennam returns home from China after many years of absence and finds the same dull and uninviting London house with the same resentful mother inside. While he meditates on what to do next with his life, his attention is drawn to a very timid seamstress of his mother– Amy Dorrit (nicknamed “Little Dorrit”). This young woman is hard-working, kind and is blindly devoted to her imprisoned family members. This makes Arthur wonder about her life, and his first step to make poor Amy his friend leads him to the discovery of another world – the world of London’s poor. Arthur is amazed to find that the absurd workings of the notorious Marshalsea prison for debtors, where Amy was born and her father is now imprisoned, should have a symbiotic relationship with the bureaucratic realm of the complacent and Kafkaesque Circumlocution Office, a governmental institution designed to keep the needy poor and the desperate for answers – even more confused. Set in England, Italy and France, Dickens’s episodic novel may not have the clarity and subtlety of the narrative expositions of Bleak House  or Dombey and Son , but it still contains all the entertaining Dickensian components. There is: a plot with long-buried family secrets and unforeseen reversals of fortune; perceptive and humoristic satire on the government (Dickens was once a Parliament Reporter) and the unfairness of the British class system; and a line of unforgettable characters, whose destinies inexplicably criss-cross and among whom are a couple of sinister personages lurking in the background and pulling the strings. Still, the “heart” of this novel is one shy young woman whose quiet resilience in the face of immense oppression moves all, as she champions the power of introversion and self-sacrificing love.
“The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and the moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships…stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre” [Dickens, 1848/2002: 12, Penguin Classics]. Dombey and Son is one of Dickens’s greatest novels and I think its main characters illustrate well the twelve star signs of the zodiac and thus the story can be told through the workings of the heavenly belt. Below is my interpretation and one caveat is possible spoilers and another is that there are obviously many more characters in the story and not just those presented below.
Mr. Paul Dombey – Leo (July 23 – August 22)
Mr. Paul Dombey is the main character. He is a cold and calculating businessman who longs to have an heir to his business and when Master Paul Dombey is born, his father has very high expectations regarding his son. Mr. Dombey is undoubtedly a Leo, proud of himself and his family (or at least proud of himself, his business and his son). Leos are the Kings of the Zodiac and Mr. Dombey likes being the centre of attention, commanding effortlessly everyone in his sight. He also likes the idea of others being dependant on him and he dislikes criticism.
AChristmas Carol is a Christmas fable about one rich miser who learns his lesson through a series of encounters with ghosts. Another famous tale about one rich miser is Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugenie Grandet  where a pretty daughter of one rich wine merchant is forced to experience the full consequence of her father’s lust for gold.
Amulet impressed me the most in January, and this is only my second novel by Roberto Bolaño. This story is told by Auxilio Lacouture, a woman who proclaims herself to be “the mother of Mexican poetry” and who is friends with up-and-coming poets, writers and artists in Mexico City. When she is left stranded in an empty and already raided by the army university, she starts to reminisce, opening to us the world which is both imaginative and realistic, artful and honest, uplifting and dark.
The Belly of Paris [1873/2007]by Emile Zola–★★★★1/2
The Belly of Paris, translated by Brian Nelson, tells of Florent, an escaped political prisoner who arrives to Paris and tries to settle down with his half-brother’s family. He seems to be a newcomer who unwittingly disrupts the usual flow of life in the area. Zola shows the plight of the working-class in the city, and his descriptions of Les Halles, once a famed food market, are sumptuous and exquisitely-rendered. The characters are also interesting and the atmosphere is conveyed, even if the plot itself requires some patience. Continue reading “January 2020 Wrap-Up: From Amulet to The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs”→