I’ve just started a new book, “The Children’s Book,” by A.S. Byatt. And the beginning of this novel is pure magic:
“Two boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery, and looked down on a third.”
Who are the boys? What are they doing in the Prince consort gallery? Why are two of them looking down at a third? Galleries don’t really have elevation–why is the third boy “below” the other two?
As the page continues, it turns out the third boy is drawing one of the treasures of the museum. Why on earth is he sitting in a museum–after hours–sketching?
Of the other two boys, more is known–one is the son of the curator, and he lives at the museum. The other is the son of “a successful authoress of magical tales,” at the museum for research.
And the first line of dialogue is “I said I’d show you a mystery.” The curator’s son says this to the authoress’s son.
Byatt is a master of her craft. What she’s done on that first page is make everything more obscure even as she pretends to reveal more to the reader. We have a time and a place, and we know a bit about two out of three people. But neither we nor the two boys know anything about the third boy. Except that he is at the greatest museum on earth, drawing.
There are some long, long books that make it clear from the first page: this is going to be worth all the time you put into it.