I did enjoy this second novel by Brooklyn resident Anna North. It’s the tale of an independent film-maker told by those who loved her. These include her brother, Robbie, her lovers Allison and Jacob and Daniel, who unwittingly became the star of her first film.
Sophie is a troubled soul and the “talking heads” attempt to penetrate what made her tick focusing on the times when their lives intersected. It follows the format of a confessional documentary, which works well in non-fiction and, indeed, in film, (I was at times reminded of the 2015 Oscar nominated “Amy” about the equally troubled Ms. Winehouse) but I’m not sure if this structure lends itself easily to a novel. We only meet Sophie through the words of others and through her film-making (and obviously this we cannot see). So she remains largely enigmatic throughout. The challenge for the author, if this is going to work, is to get us to really care about Sophie and I’m not sure North quite pulls this off.
Another concern I had was regarding the narrators. There’s not enough identity of their own in their accounts and their viewpoints on Sophie all rather tally. This has the result of them blending into one another. It’s all a little bit like Sophie came into their lives, used them to some degree for her film-making and died. (I don’t think that’s a plot spoiler as it is in the title). This may be because I am an English reader of an American novel and not picking out the differences in linguistic style but I’m thinking about Irish writer Donal Ryan’s novel of voices “The Spinning Heart” (2012) (which I do quite often) and the way he managed to make each of his 21 narrators sound different allowing him to relate his tale with a clarity and vibrancy which gives greater dimension and depth to his novel.
I chose to read this book because the subject fascinates me. Last year I discovered a couple of very good books which are also biographical accounts of women in film, “The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite” by Beatrice Colin (2008) and “Like Venus Fading” (1998 )by Marsha Hunt. These main characters are actresses, admittedly, but I thought that this more contemporary take on film, focusing on a female director would be on a par with these but for me it never quite cranked up to the level I was anticipating and compared to both these novels this feels strangely insubstantial. I couldn’t totally buy into Sophie finding much success as a film-maker.
However, there are lots of things to recommend it. The whole thing has a layer of darkness about it, which is appealing, and we do get a sense of Sophie’s drive to make films as really the only way of expressing herself and of the reasons why being in charge of the process is so important to her. I do find characters obsessed by the creative arts fascinating and I do think the novel reads well. I did enjoy the book more than I would have enjoyed sitting through Sophie’s films I think, and perhaps, there’s the rub. Perhaps the book and I are not an ideal match. For that to happen I would have needed to had more enthusiasm for Sophie’s cinematic world. So more mixed feelings than I was expecting to have when I began this book and thus I would be very interested to find out other readers’ perceptions.
The Life And Death Of Sophie Stark is published in the UK by W&N in Feb 2016. Many thanks to the publisher and to Netgalley for this advance copy.