Today’s first page critique is a novel entitle ‘1940’. My comments follow, but I think it is a good example of some of the pitfalls when it comes to the opening of any novel – namely how to start with an incident that compels a reader to keep reading, while also providing a good grounding in the time and place of the story. See you on the flip side for more detailed commentary.
Ilya began to fidget. The concrete bench he shared with his teacher chilled his thin frame. Martha stopped reading the Washington Herald and placed it on her lap. She watched Ilya finish a sketch of the blooming dogwood tree that stood across from them. It fascinated her he could draw the tree effortlessly at the age most boys in fourth grade just wanted to climb a one.
He slid the worn pencil over his left ear then stared at her, but kept silent.
“What is it Ilya? She asked. “I can tell something’s on your mind.”
He had been waiting for the right moment to tell her what the housekeeper said while he was waiting for the limo this morning.
“Alfrayda said teachers don’t take their students to the cemetery.”
She held her temper and calmly said, “This teacher does.” Then she confidently added, “I’ll set Alfrayda straight first thing when we get back to the compound.” She wasn’t afraid to confront the Soviet embassy housekeeper.
“Father should bring me,” he said angrily. “He’s just an attache at the embassy. He has time.”
She placed her arm around his shoulder and drew him close. “My dear boy, your father is not just an attache. He has many demands for his time and Ambassador Aleksandrovich relies heavily on your father’s skills.”
“You have demands, but you always have time for me.”
“Yes, I have demands, but nothing on the scale of a government official.”
He accepted her reply and began to sketch an outline of the gravestone set under the flowering dogwood. That upright gravestone in the sea of handcrafted concrete statues seemed cruel to her. Ilya’s slender fingers guided the pencil systematically, retreating to darken and emphasize his mother’s name engraved across the tarnished limestone.
Ilya nudged her. “I’ve finished.” He held the sketch at arms length for her to observe.
“One day you will have your drawings displayed in a museum,” she told him. Maybe then, she thought to herself, Yaroslav Dalmatov would appreciate his son’s artistic talent.
“You mean like the museums here in D.C.?”
“Of course.” She never hesitated to encourage him.
Overall, although this first page is tightly written and interesting it doesn’t have anything that reaches out and grabs me from the outset. All we really have is a conversation between a boy and his teacher. Although the fact that is his father is an attache to the Soviet Embassy in DC is interesting, there’s not much in this first page that provides anything in the way of real intrigue. There are snippets of it – the fact that he’s sketching at the cemetery where his mother is buried, the fact that his father is clearly doing something important with the Soviet Ambassador, but there isn’t quite enough to get a reader invested in the characters as yet. We need to care about Illya and his artistic talent to have our interest piqued. Right now, I’m not feeling all that compelled as a reader to read more. I think the author should reconsider where to actually start this novel – this page sounds more like the opening to a second chapter than the first.
There’s also not a lot in terms of historical grounding for this first page. If I didn’t see the title ‘1940’, I wouldn’t be able to place when this first page conversation is taking place. I liked the sparseness of the detail provided and the directness of the dialogue, but I felt I needed a greatest sense of historical footing so I could visualize the scene. Without historical context, this conversation could be taking place today, or the 1950s or 1960s. There’s no detail given to distinguish the time period for me. It’s always hard reviewing a first page when you don’t have a synopsis or outline, but it is important to set the stage both in time and space – I see Washington DC but I don’t, as yet, see 1940.
This first page is written with an omniscient 3rd POV where we, as readers, hear the thoughts of Illya as well as his teacher. For me this dilutes the power of this particular first page – I wanted to feel closer to one of these two characters (registering their emotional responses and hearing their inner dialogue) to feel more engaged.
Now this might be a bit of a nit pick, but the name ‘Alfrayda’ threw me out of the story – for some reason it sounded wrong for the 1940s and also (weirdly) reminded me of names in The Handmaiden’s Tale. This could just be me, but I caution the writer on including too many unusual names that could distract from historical grounding of the story (unless of course this is an alternate history/fantasy where names like that are common!). Also there are a lot of names used in this first page without any really characterisation provided: We have Martha, Illya, Alfrayda, Ambassador Aleksandrovich and Yaroslav Dalmatov (Illya’s father) – but out of all of them, I can really only picture Illya given the scene described.
Although I liked the conversation between Illya and Martha about his artistic talent and the graveyard drawing session, all the dramatic tension feels off stage – between Illya’s father and his son, as well as between Martha and the Alfrayda. There isn’t any actual conflict on the page. Martha is supportive of Illya’s talent and wants to encourage him but we don’t understand why we (as readers) should care about his talent or his role in the upcoming story.
The good news is that the first page is well written with a nice clarity of prose and purposeful dialogue. For it to be a compelling first page, however, I think the author should either start the novel in a different place (and keep this scene for a later chapter), or inject more dramatic tension onto the page to have us, as readers, fully invested in this story from the get-go.
So TKZers what do you think? What advice would you give our brave submitter?