I wasn’t at all sure that I would include a review of Anna North’s new novel here: it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it but it’s published exclusively as an ebook. I’m still wedded to paper, I’m afraid, and it seemed unfair to include a book that I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t been sent a proof but it’s just too good to ignore. And for those of you yet to succumb to the joys of an ereader, there will be a paperback edition early in 2016, apparently. As the title suggests, this is the story of one woman but told by five people on whose lives she had an indelible effect.
Sophie Stark, née Emily Buckley, was a filmmaker. An outcast at school, mocked for her oddness, she reinvents herself using her misfit status to her advantage. She watches others, listens to their stories, claiming that the only way she can make sense of people is from behind a camera. Her films catch the critics’ attention – they’re the stuff of cult followings – but often those close to her find their own lives reflected back to them, some painfully so. Eventually she makes an uncharacteristic choice – a film written by someone else – and her reputation looks set to wane. These are the bare bones of Sophie’s story as told to us by her brother, Robbie; Allison, the young woman she turns into an actor and with whom she has an uncompromising affair; her husband, Jacob, whose story when retold on film is not quite what he’d expected; George, the Hollywood producer on the slide she turns to when ideas run dry, and Ben Martin, the critic, once in thrall to Sophie, who becomes disenchanted by her move into the mainstream. Sophie’s end, when it comes, is no real surprise to anyone but what she leaves behind is.
In telling Sophie’s story, each of North’s characters reveal far more about themselves than they do about her. It’s a structure that works well: Sophie is an enigma and remains one, hence the Churchillian quote heading this review. She says she doesn’t understand people but she’s astute and has a way of getting them to tell their rawest stories which she then translates on to film. She gives nothing of herself away but her occasional flashes of vulnerability disarm those around her. At one point she says of herself ‘I think I’m like one of those crabs, where it builds itself out of parts of other animals’. North’s book leaves you wondering what Sophie was really like while posing the much bigger question: is the use of other people’s most private memories in an apparent attempt to understand them an act of artistic integrity or downright exploitation? It’s an unusual, thought-provoking and arresting book – I found it quite riveting. Many apologies to any committed paper book reader I’ve irritated by reviewing it: keep your eyes peeled in early 2016 and with luck you’ll spot the paperback edition.