The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North: ‘A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’

The Life and Death of Sophie StarkI 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.

12 thoughts on “The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North: ‘A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’”

  1. ‘An unusual, thought-provoking and arresting book’ Sold! Like you I usually prefer paper but sometimes it’s good to have back ups on ereader I’ll be adding this one during next shopping spree

    1. I hope you like it, Poppy. I was very surprised to get a hard copy of it, I have to say, and it turned out to be unmissable!

    1. Susan Osborne

      I’m not sure, Ali. It certainly a change from the old hardback/paperback sequence of events, although I’ve always thought that lots of novels should go straight into paperback, particularly debuts.

  2. I am always fascinated to see his an author manages the question of multiple narrative voices, whether they can make them distinctive and whether they convince me that it was a way they needed to go. Consequently, this may find its way onto my reading list even though the story itself doesn’t really appeal to me.

  3. You had me with ‘A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, because it was one of my father’s favourite expressions, and I like the sound of the book too.

    I can’t quite get my head around the ebook followed by paperback thing, but I can see that it might be effective for the kind of books that might start small and build a readership.

    1. Susan Osborne

      That quote popped into my head as I came to the end of the book, Fleur. It seemed to sum Sophie up for me. It’s great, isn’t it!

      I suspect you’re right about publishing the ebook ahead of the paperback. I’ve always thought, particularly in my bookselling days, that it was ridiculous to publish an unknown writer in hardback. It was always claimed that it was to satisfy the library market (and reviewers, so I’ve heard) but it made no commercial sense to me.

  4. I’ll have to wait for 2016, but I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled then. I love filmmakers as subhjects of fiction – it seems to trigger all sorts of interesting creativity.

    1. Susan Osborne

      I liked the way that Sophie’s story was told from every one else’s point of view but her own thus revealing themselves which I suppose is what some film makers do, in a way. I hope the publishers are true to their word and bring out a paper version.

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