In this category of “First Chapter,” I’ll be writing about—as the name implies—the first chapter of the novel I’m currently reading. This idea originates from my “Intensive Fiction” class with fiction writer and University of Chicago professor Elizabeth Crane. In class, we read first chapters of novels and talked about the ways in which the writer introduced characters and themes, as well as got readers interested (or not) in reading more of the novel. I’ll try to do the same here, and then write a book review when I’m done with the full novel, to see the way my perceptions about the book, characters, etc. changed since writing about the first chapter. So, here goes nothing…
“The Boundless Deep” by Kate Brallier
Brallier starts the novel with a dream. She even writes, “It always starts with a dream.” This could have been off-putting had I not known from the book jacket that this novel is about a girl plagued by dreams of whaling despite never having been to the sea.
The dream itself is vivid, in part because of the highly-descriptive verbs Brallier uses: slapping, screaming, blasted up, chapping, watering (and that’s just from the first couple of sentences). And, from the very start, the focus is clearly on the dream imagery—a sperm whale is harpooned and the crew struggles to control it before it either dives back into the water or crashes into their boat. The main character, the dreamer, just seems to exist as part of the background, the one who is witnessing the whaling; this demands that the reader wonder about the dreams, more so than the dreamer.
The dreamer gives no detail of himself/herself, except when recognizing that they are fully aware that they are dreaming. “As the captain on that long-ago deck, I don’t know it; but I, the dreamer, know it,” writes Brallier.
When the dreamer wakes up, a full five pages into the first chapter, we are finally introduced to the main character, but, again and again, we are reminded about how these dreams have been consuming so much of her waking life, even though both are at odds with one another. In describing the dreams, she compares them to her practical, Midwestern childhood. All of this clearly hints at dilemma #1: why is she dreaming these dreams? Is she haunted, experiencing a universal consciousness, or reincarnated? And, most important to her, why her? Why can’t she just be normal, like everyone else?
Enter Jane, Liza’s roommate. Jane changes the color of her hair once a week, doesn’t know how to cook, is intelligent, and wants to know what’s going on with Liza’s dreams, even more so, it seems, than Liza herself does. (Most of this description of Jane is given through the telling of the story, not thrown in as facts unrelated to anything else).
This first chapter, we also learn, takes place the day Liza and Jane are to leave on their summer trip to Nantucket, to stay with Jane’s Aunt Kitty. Liza is finally doing something about her dreams; she’s going to the place she’s been dreaming about in hopes of figuring out what is causing her dreams. From the very start, Liza is breaking out of what is comfortable for her. As she justifies it, “After all, there’s only so long you can live with your head buried in the sand before you suffocate, right?”
So, strange whaling dreams plus main character reaching out beyond what she knows (and is comfortable with) equals a novel that I’m interested in learning more about. Brallier successfully introduces the main character and her sidekick, while also portraying the character’s main conflicts—and, it all happened in the nine-pages of the first chapter.