Of art and artists: Anna North’s ‘The Life and Death of Sophie Stark’ (2015)


‘The Life and Death of Sophie Stark’ approaches the story of tormented (and tormenting) genius with conviction and verve.  Sophie Stark is a talented independent film maker and the book is narrated by those who knew her at critical moments in her dazzling, short career.  Like many other successful stories of powerful and dangerous women (Atwood’s ‘The Robber Bride‘, Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’) the central character is enigmatic, a fantasy of others and a self-conscious image maker in her own right.

The cross-over and power of such story-telling is never more powerful than at the start.  Allison describes how she met Sophie at a story telling series at at Brooklyn bar.  Allison tells a horror story, in which she fictionalises a terrible trauma from her own past.  Sophie is convinced that she can make a film of the story and that Allison should star.  She also makes a promise to her leading lady, ‘I would never do anything you didn’t want me to do.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Allison gets hurt by the end of her chapter.  It is soon apparent that Sophie’s vocation is to tell the stories around her with maximum power and, as such, a certain calculated disregard for the sensitivities of those involved.  Sophie does not spare herself though, she is an awkward, unloveable, single-mindedly  ambitious artist who is convincing in both her obsessive relationships and her inner emptiness.  She is never a complete character, but it would be a less powerful book if she were, instead she adds glamour and callous genius to the lives of those she touches.

My favourite of the incidental characters had to be Allison, not least because her West Virginian upbringing reminded me of Sara Taylor’s ‘The Shore,’ one of my top reads of 2015 (reviewed here).  I also loved the star of Sophie’s evocative music video, the traumatised and insecure Jacob, whose mother’s death inspires her cold-hearted third film.  In fact, the descriptions of the films are all fantastic, no mean feat given the difficulty of depicting one art form through another.

‘The Life and Death of Sophie Stark’ is a successful novel, made up of more than successful parts.  The idea of imperfectly understanding artistic genius is convincing enough, but North’s real strengths come from individual characters sketches and vignettes.  Based on this novel, I’d really hope to see her publishing short stories in the future.  I’m sure that I’ll be returning to some of the discrete stories from ‘The Life and Death’ when I want to be reminded of the power of art, and when I want to be reminded of why I’d never want to give my life over to the dark genius of a tormented artist.

I received my copy of ‘The Life and Death of Sophie Stark’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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2 Responses to Of art and artists: Anna North’s ‘The Life and Death of Sophie Stark’ (2015)

  1. Lovely review of a powerful and enthralling book

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