Only Then Does

I like slow-reading the first few lines of books that I find on popular lists. The less I know about the book when I start reading the better. No author bio, no summaries, no reviews. My notes and questions represent a first, raw reading and may therefore be misguided and misleading. Because I am a pedant I often get stuck on details a few sentences in. For example, here:

It was only1 three years ago that I saw Vita for the first time. The day began as my days always did then2, greeting a daughter for whom adolescence meant allowing me increasingly smaller glimpses of herself. I woke her before showering and dressing, then, predictably, had to wake her for a second time before going downstairs. I was in a long-standing white-food routine that summer, and my meals typically comprised various breakfasts: toast, cereal or crumpets. On days when food does3 not have to be dry, scrambled eggs or omelettes can also count as white. I cannot tell if it is a day on which an egg is a white food until I hold one in my hand. It is a small but real joy to me that as an adult I can decide, without explanation, whether eggs qualify as white, and therefore edible, on any given day. Without being told I am making a show of myself. That I am hysterical, attention-seeking and to be ignored until I eat something that is violently coloured.
(The first few lines from All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow, with my footnotes)

The first sentence may sound a little tired – I suspect that more than one story from the last 100 years has started with it or a close variant. But from sentence two onward, this is an intriguing opening paragraph, one that takes us directly into a world that reveals itself on its own terms. I can’t say I fully get where it’s going at the end (if being “hysterical” means being without “violently coloured” food, what’s the meaning of “white food”?) but I’d like to know more. Here’s three thoughts on three words I had while reading this:

1 Perhaps it’s obvious to the pros, but this is a good example of how a single word can carry a lot of weight, especially in the case of a first sentence, which often tells readers what to expect from a story: The phrase “only three years” seems to imply that a lot has happened, so much that you would feel even more time had passed since “Vita” showed up. As a reader, I’d expect to be told about notable changes, upheavals even, with “Vita” always a part of the events.
In contrast, “three years” would sound more neutral and point toward different options: the story seems more likely to happen without the permanent influence of “Vita”; the three years since “Vita” showed up may even have been boring and change may be more subtle; the date may be recorded here for the purpose of ordering a narrative on a correct time-line.

2 Another lesson about the weight of single, inconspicuous words in opening lines: The phrase “as my days always did then” implies things have changed. In the phrase “as my days always did”, without the word “then”, this change could still have occurred but it wouldn’t be half as obvious, or half as significant.

3 Another single word that apparently matters, even though I’m not sure I understand it: I’d have expected “did” and “could” in this sentence because I had somehow assumed that the apparent change, wide-sweeping as it seemed, would include the “long-standing white-food routine”. However, the change from past tense to present tense, which is then used during the explanation about “white-food routine” until the end of this paragraph, seems to imply that this routine is very much a part of the narrator’s present.

First few lines read from:Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow, All the Little Bird-Hearts (Tinder Press)
Found on this list:Booker Prize 2023 (Longlist)
Involuntary thought had while reading:That a totally white egg would look unsettling


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