Exploring the art of prose


Favorite First Sentence: WAYS TO DISAPPEAR

“In a crumbling park in the crumbling back end of Copacabana, a woman stopped under an almond tree with a suitcase and a cigar.”

Ways to Disappear, Idra Novey’s debut novel, is about a South American writer who has disappeared, and the fast-paced novel follows the writer’s children and her translator as they search for her. The woman in this first sentence is the writer—Beatriz Yagoda—and so the entry into this story is actually with an appearance of the woman that the reader will spend the rest of the novel chasing. We get to see her—only to have her disappear.

The sentence pulls the reader in almost as though a camera is tightening its zoom. A “crumbling park” narrows to the “crumbling back end” and then the generalities become specific with “Copacabana.” The repetition of the word “crumbling” serves to underscore the general vagueness, although it’s important to note how the articles become more specific as well, “a” park leads to “the” back end. In the second half of the sentence, we again move from the general to the specific: “a woman” is followed by “an almond tree” and “a suitcase and a cigar.”

In its generalities, the sentence feels almost like the start of a fairy tale or a children’s book. And that’s part of the appeal here: we want to read on in order to learn more. The specifics provide us with just enough information to be curious: Why is she there? Why did she stop? What does she have a suitcase? And what about that cigar? Novey, as a poet and a translator, knows well the power of each word, and the way in which a particular sequence of words works on the reader.

by Laura Spence-Ash