The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
Anna North’s new novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, tells the story of Sophie Stark’s life, as promised, but it does so entirely through the words and impressions of others. Her brother, her colleagues, her lovers all contribute to our picture of Stark, who emerges as a gifted artist and filmmaker, utterly committed to her craft but ill at ease with the world around her.
From the perspective of her brother, we see Stark’s discovery of film as an expressive medium, when filming an experimental documentary about the college basketball star with whom she is infatuated. Her gift for filmmaking is apparent in this first attempt, but so is her ruthlessness. She is willing to go to drastic lengths in pursuit of her artistic vision, a trait that will see her repeatedly exploit and hurt the people she longs to be close to. In Stark, North has created perhaps the rarest of all literary creations: the female artistic genius.
Of course, in portraying Stark entirely through the words of other characters, the author runs the risk of holding the reader at permanent arm’s length from the inscrutable Stark, and it’s a risk North has not entirely avoided. Stark’s strange and brittle exterior fascinates, but she doesn’t always compel, as our glimpses of her inner life are too fragmentary, her motivations too obscure for her to develop into much more than the archetypal “troubled artistic genius” figure.
Depicting genius in fiction is always a difficult problem, and the novel struggles to convey the supposed power of Stark’s films to the reader. We know her films are brilliant works of art because the narrating characters tell us so, but their actual descriptions of Stark’s work often make the films sound a bit, well, naff. This makes it hard to believe that Stark’s meagre filmic output could truly have the far-reaching artistic impact North is at pains to depict.
Happily, these issues don’t overshadow the novel’s many moments of beauty and joy. The section narrated by Stark’s former basketball star crush is particularly skilful in its portrayal of the disappointments and consolations of adulthood. It is precisely this melancholy emotional landscape that The Life and Death of Sophie Stark captures so well, and despite the flaws, the crisp lucidity and intelligence of North’s writing will resonate long after the final page is turned. DV
W&N, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2015 as "Anna North, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark". Subscribe here.