…all my strongest memories of Sophie were of her leaving…
Sophie Stark, our eponymous antihero, is a visionary filmmaker whose searing genius and determination leads her to create movies of unparalleled rawness “as if an alien had come down and filmed humans and shown us what we were like so much more honestly than any other human could”. She makes her art, and her life, about other people’s stories. Anna North’s novel is narrated by six people who were close to Sophie (her brother, her first documentary subject, her lover and sometimes muse, her husband, a critic who follows her career, and a producer she exploits). It is through these (mostly male) eyes we are encouraged to observe Sophie as if she were the subject of one of her own documentaries. The result is a series of tantalising glimpses rather than a true portrait – we are left with a patchwork Sophie made of other people’s projections – a fitting end for a woman who thought she was “like one of those crabs, where it builds itself out of parts of other animals.”
I thought making movies would make me more like other people,” said Sophie. “But sometimes I think it just makes me even more like me”.
Refracting the lead character like this is a very risky move, and North pulls it off brilliantly. From what we see of Sophie, she could be either an incredibly sensitive, artistic and empathetic soul or an icy detached sociopath. Just as Sophie teaches her younger brother to draw by forcing him to change his perspective and then having him capture small details piece by piece until he has the whole picture, so too does this novel gradually achieve a clear picture of a fascinating, enigmatic character. Each contrasting perspective on Sophie seems totally convincing in the moment of reading because each of the six narrators are trying to puzzle Sophie out themselves. It only works because each of the narrators are beautifully realised in their own right – we fully inhabit the skin of these six people and feel part of their lives. In particular I defy anyone not to be moved by the inner workings of Daniel (whom we first see through Sophie’s obsessive filming of him as a basketball hero and big man on campus, and whose life changes immeasurably).
I used to think I was special and that was why I seemed to fuck everything up all the time. But now I know it’s just because I’m not a very good person.
One of the few things that all the narrators agree on is the importance of Sophie’s art to her. The motivations they ascribe to it vary, but the primacy of her art above everything and everyone else is perhaps the only universal trait Sophie has. I’m sure this refreshingly unabashed focus on female artistic vision is a large part of the reason Lena Dunham raved about this book. After all, it’s still quite rare to find unabashedly ambitious and driven female characters. Anna North has a gift for deceptively simple descriptions you will have to pause and savour: “She had a sad edge to her voice that made me like her hair even more.” This is a truly clever and engaging book which is extremely difficult to review without spoilers. Read it for yourself – you won’t be sorry.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is published by Orion. I received a copy of this book in return for an impartial review.