The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
Orion Publishing Group
Pub Date: May 19 2015
Order/Buy: Amazon UK
“I think I’m like one of those crabs, where it builds itself out of parts of other animals”
Anna North’s second novel arrives next month with some big name praise. Emma Donoghue, author of booker nominated Room, has described the novel as “Not only a dissection of genius and the havoc it can wreak, but also a thunderously good story.” On reading the book it’s not hard to see evidence of what so impressed Donoghue.
As the book’s title says, it is about the Life and Death of Sophie Stark, an acclaimed film-maker, as told by six people who knew her in some capacity: a lover/actress, a school crush, her brother, her husband, a film producer, and a film critic. Each has a story to tell about Stark, stories than in some cases were used by Stark in her film-making. As her brother says at one point “Sophie was often accused – rightly, in many cases – of stealing other people’s stories, and now she was letting us tell hers”
The picture they paint of Stark is one of someone who has difficulty expressing her feelings. She can be cold and brutal. She feels like an outsider, unable to fit and an understand those around her. This leads her to explore ways of making sense of other people and herself, first through drawing, then through photography and finally through film. Stark makes films said to be ‘more like life than life itself’. But like many film makers each film only acts as a disappointment as whilst they sometimes satisfy her artistic requirements they often hurts those around her through her unflinching determination to make what she considers the best film, regardless of whether to do so she must manipulate those close to her or choose a tone that may upset those closest to her and the stories. So whilst each step is meant to be a step closer to connecting with life and bringing her closer to other people she herself concludes “nothing has driven me further away from people than moving making”.
What emerges is an interesting examination of how our lives (or at least how they are perceived) are often based on the perceptions of those who know us, perhaps even more so for those in the public spotlight. In this case we see a driven and talented artist with no people skills who cannot find a way to ‘fit’ into the world in which she lives. It is as if the more she tries to understand life the more she fails to do so. She doesn’t understand people, but at the same time she can see through people. She immediately identifies that Allison (Lover/actress) is lying about a story she is telling because of her body language and stance. There is an undercurrent of metal instability and yet the book never asks if Stark is depressed or bi-polar, although as readers these thoughts may arise throughout the book.
But the book is more than just about Stark. The book is also about these six individuals recollecting Stark too. They all have their own stories to tell – some of which were purloined/exploited by Stark for her films. It is also clear that each was drawn to and liked, in some instances, loved Stark too. She has affected all their lives in some way and left a deep impression, something that always seems to be enhanced when someone dies young. As her husband says when asked why he married her: “a life is a heavy burden and imagine if someone just carried it for you for a while”. I beautiful sentiment. Indeed, by the end of the novel, we probably know more about most of these six narrators than we do Stark, which is perhaps the point. All are troubled in their own way, most have suffered a traumatic experience that has shaped who they are, and it is this emotion that Stark seems to feed on, in the hope that it will lead to her own sense of emotional fulfilment.
As an aside, and as someone who reviews things and who used to review films quite regularly it was funny to read a section where Ben the film reviewer relays how he has been told by his publication that he has to start to award films ‘stars’ [not a practice I am particularly fond of myself] and says he awards the film in question 3,468,994.2 stars [then there is an Editors note: *** ] This made me smile.
North, who works and writes for the New York Times, has with The Life and Death of Sophie Stark created an emotionally layered and enjoyable novel which is both about ‘the tortured artist’ but also about loss and trauma and how we are shaped and affected by the presence in our lives of unique characters. Well worth a read.
Review copy provided by Orion Publishing Group / Netgalley