In the fall of 2004, Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep and I talked about great first lines, and one of the books I cited was Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond (Farrar, Straus, 2012). Rose Macauley loved three things above all others: Anglicanism, travel, and animals. Her first line reflects all three of these. Here it is:
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
An opening sentence as brilliant as that sets a high bar for the rest of this bittersweet comedy of manners, but Macauley doesn’t let us down. Aunt Dot, Father Hugh-Chantry-Pigg, and Laurie, the novel’s narrator, are traveling through Turkey with a psychotic (and unnamed) camel in order to spread the blessings of the Anglican Church (especially important as Billy Graham and his followers have preceded them there). They also plan (in the case of Father Hugh) to search for relics of dead saints for his collection, collect material to write a book about their travels (Aunt Dot), and provide illustrations for the book (Laurie). One of the reasons this novel is endlessly fascinating is that Macauley never tells us whether Laurie is a man or a woman. The clues she offers (an unhappy love affair and a country house weekend among them) only add to the mystery. Despite my regular re-readings of The Towers of Trebizond I’ve never quite been able to decide. (I’ve also got to say that this new edition of has the best cover of any that I’ve ever seen.)