Jaws, Zadok and the art of how to begin a novel

On Saturday, I bought JAWS by Peter Benchley for 30/= from a book-hawker. The first four pages introduced one of the main characters, ‘the great fish’ (shark), by showing how it attacked, killed and ate a young woman who had gone for a night swim in the cold ocean after a boozy date.

A hundred yards offshore, the fish sensed a change in the sea’s rhythm. It did not see the woman, nor yet did it smell her. Running within the length of its body were a series of thin canals, filled with mucus and dotted with nerve endings, and these nerves detected vibrations and signaled the brain. The fish turned towards shore.

Peter Benchley shows the shark as a character without any self-doubt. This contrasts to the woman character who feels fear etc. The shark attacks and kills without psychological motive. The writer does not give it human characteristics (yet it is not a machine) and this helps make the shark vs woman contest a gripping affair.

At first the woman thought she had snagged her leg on a rock or a piece of floating wood. There was no initial pain, only one violent tug on her right leg. She reached down to touch her foot, treading water with her left leg to keep her head up, feeling in the blackness with her left hand. She could not find her foot. She reached higher on her leg, and then she was overcome by a rush of nausea and dizziness. Her groping fingers had found a nub of bone and tattered flesh. She knew that the warm, pulsing flow over her fingers in the chill water was her own blood.

Pain and panic struck together. The woman threw her head back and screamed a guttural cry of terror.

The fish had moved away. It swallowed the woman’s limb without chewing. Bones and meat passed down the massive gullet in a single spasm. Now the fish turned again, homing on a stream of blood flushing from the woman’s femoral artery, a beacon as clear and true as a lighthouse on a cloudless night.

A wonderful first four pages.


Today, I received a personally autographed copy of SISTER SISTER written by the South African author, Rachel Zadok.  I will quote the entire prologue of this novel. You’ll want to read more:

sister sister

The woman dreams she approached KwaNogqaza Falls, just as she did on the night of her initiation ceremony, twenty five years before. She reaches the pool at the bottom of the waterfall and sinks to her knees to pray, but the sandy bank collapses and she slips into the water. The Inkanyamba swirls around her, dragging her down to the river bed where weeds dance with creatures half snake, half fish, and long-bodied crabs watch from crevices in the rocks, eyes like jelly-berries on silver stalks.

“Dig,” Inkanyama tells her. She buries her arm up to the elbow. Sand clouds the water, enveloping her in a storm of glittering grains. Her fingers close around two small stones.

The serpent-god takes her into his mouth and spits her out at the surface. She is no longer in the forest. A beach stretches out before her. The woman walks along the sand with the pebbles in her hand. Before long, she comes across a dead gull lying just above the tidemark. Two white chiks sit on the bird, picking maggots from its feathers. As she watches, the water subsides until there is a single blue on the horizon. Where there was ocean, there is only sand. The dune grasses shrivel. The trees in the coastal forest sicken, dropping leaves until they are nothing more than splintered grey trunk and branch. The world dies as the chicks grow fat on their dinner of maggots.

There is a searing pain in her hand. She opens her palm and looks at the pebbles, perfect white ovals, identical save for a scab that discolours the purity of one. She picks at the scab with her nail. Blood wells from the pebble and a sound like that of a mewling baby fills the air. The stone shudders and rolls away from her prying finger towards its twin. They merge, becoming one. She contemplates the single stone in her hand, but before she can glean meaning, it splits in two and her palm begins to bleed.

Someone shakes her. The woman opens her eyes and sees Sizane leaning over her.

“It’s time, Mama,” she says. “The baby is coming.”



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