Books about film are something of a favorite of mine. Despite conflicting reviews, I thought Marisha Pessl’s Night Film was a total pleasure to read (and a love letter to horror, but that’s another review). I cut my reading teeth on Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and her home movies. Contemporary authors all over, from Jess Walter and Chuck Palahniuk to Liane Moriarty have all tackled the complicated world of silver screens and faded starlets.
Anna North’s new novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, filled that niche nicely. She hits all the right marks, cleverly intimating the films being made while keeping the work itself highly elusive, highly magical. Somewhere between the people who watch movies and the people that make movies are the real people that exist in a world of strenuous bonds and artistic challenges.
North’s novel conceptually tracks the life of enigmatic filmmaker, Sophie Stark née Emily (a great name, if you ask me) from her early college years to her… well, you’ve already read the title of the book.
In a device that I was already tired of last month, North sets each chapter from the perspective of a new character tangentially related to the nominal Sophie Stark. And, much as it pains me to say this, the device works beautifully in this well-thought, clearly planned novel about the cult of art. I’ll admit to a momentary lack of faith when the book starts off at a trendy story-telling session in Bushwick, but North redeems herself with aplomb. This novel is very much a story set in a time and place, so if you’re allergic to all things Brooklyn, stay away! If you’re willing to work with its at times haughty sense of contemporariness, you’re in for a tight read that will stay with you long past the final page.
Part of the power of this novel is Stark’s electric characterization. North isn’t the best writer in the world… at times, her writing is repetitive and a touch cliché, but she has a real talent for weaving life and blood characters from casual dialogue and a few, well-placed adjectives. Every person in this book is a fascinating force of nature that I could easily have read more about. That the book is about the one person whose voice you never hear turns into a haunting refrain that harkens back to the tone, if not the style of Pessl’s novel. Indeed, writing about film exists in that difficult terrain of artistic Ekphrasis that leaves something important unsaid. I think that North does a stellar job of making the emptiness count.
What I liked most about The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is North’s willingness to push the envelope. In the hands of a less talented writer, this easily could have dissolved into a moralizing tale about how little anyone knows anyone. In North’s capable hands, it becomes a frightening tale about the strange heart of love. I found myself pondering the lengths these characters went to preserve or prove their unique love emotions, while silently sacrificing the golden calf that had enabled the feeling in the first place.
At the end of the day, I found Sophie’s story compelling. I found the people in her life compelling. I found Sophie’s art compelling. Ultimately, this had little to do with Sophie or even my predilection for books about movies. It had a whole lot to do with North herself.
Would I recommend this book? For the right reader, definitely. Would I recommend North’s next book? Abso-freaking-lutely. I am thrilled to see what North works on next.