Monday 14 October 2019

Review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, by Anna North

Fiction: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, Anna North, Orion, €13

American author Anna North.
American author Anna North.

Justine Carbery

The intriguing question of who is Sophie Stark is one that underpins this offbeat debut novel by American author Anna North. Even Sophie Stark herself struggles to figure out who she is and how to find her place in the world. Her unsettling story is told posthumously in a chorus of voices; by her colleague George, her brother Robbie, her college crush Daniel, her husband Jakob, her lover Allison, and a journalist, Ben, who follows her artistic career from fledgling documentary maker to art-house film director.

Through their stories we come to know her, in as much as anyone can know her. We never meet the eponymous Sophie directly, her portrayal sifted through the consciousness of others. An audacious yet ingenious ploy but one which pays off.

With this well-crafted structure Anna North, a staff editor at the New York Times, shows us she is not afraid to take risks. As does the story itself.

Sophie is a misfit, an outsider, the archetypal artiste, full of brooding contradictions; tiny and frail yet fiercely strong, confident yet vulnerable, loving yet detached. As a reader I both loved and hated her.

High-functioning autism is hinted at, though never mentioned. It is only through the camera lens that she manages to make sense of the world. Beautiful and haunting, her image-driven films "more like life than life itself," are how she communicates, but even these, she feels, leave her on the periphery of society.

"I thought making movies would make me more like other people," said Sophie. "But sometimes I think it just makes me more like me."

Her talent comes at a cost though. She sacrifices relationships for a good shot, her directorial decisions causing cracks in her private life.

When she capitalises on her girlfriend's vulnerability for a good shot, and uses her husband's tragic memories of his mother in a much darker way than he was led to believe, she jeopardises her marriage for her art.

"I knew I could either make it happy or I could make it good," she admits, alienating her husband, and also the reader. And the book continues to ask that question - is it okay to appropriate other people's stories, reveal their secrets in order to turn them into compelling art, hurting people close to you along the way?

The novel makes no attempt to preach or answer that question for the reader. We are left to figure it out for ourselves. It's a novel that makes you work, challenging your set beliefs in an unsettling and oblique way. The ending, when it comes, is neither surprising, nor shocking. It's all there in the title, but the memory of Sophie lingers.

Unconventional and unforgettable, she compels us to think about the bigger questions regarding life and art, its role and function, its importance and effect.

Like James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is a portrait of an artist as a young woman; a tricky, flawed young woman at that.

This thought-provoking novel is an intimate portrayal of an elusive genius, and a refreshingly original read.

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