While the title pretty much gives it all away, Anna North’s latest novel still offers an intriguing and refreshingly unsympathetic portrayal of a woman who is most often described as that most frustrating of terms – difficult.
Told from the point of view of those who loved her – her brother, her exes, and her husband, as well as a critic’s opinion on her work – the novel offers a fragmented portrait of the eponymous Sophie Stark, a director of cult indie fare that’s prized by critics and audiences for its unflinching honesty and raw emotions. However, it is through Sophie’s own impenetrable coldness and manipulation that these moments of appealing cinema verite are achieved, and the people she left behind are left to reconcile these facts.
The novel’s strengths lie in its willingness to paint its protagonist (who never gives her own point of view in the story – we only see her through others’ eyes) as irritating, callous and occasionally downright despicable. She has her sympathetic moments and is undeniably alluring but she’s also too willing to use the pain of those she apparently cares about for her own creative means. At one point, an audience member of one of her screenings calls her out on her potential exploitation and the response she gives is knowingly weak.
Discussions of art and the price we pay for it when it draws from real life are hardly new, but North takes a less common route by detailing this conflict from those whose lives are affected as a result: From the starry-eyed girlfriend to the husband who spills his most brutal private agonies to a supposed ally. These moments are punctuated by a delightfully pompous critic who can’t get enough of Stark’s work. While Stark herself struggles to deal with her own inability to interact with her loved ones and those around her deal with the consequences, there are others out there unwittingly gaining pleasure from that.
North stumbles when it comes to Sophie’s films themselves. There’s a major hurdle to overcome as a writer when discussing a genius. You can’t just rely on other characters constantly spewing out raves for their work and its undeniable virtuosity, but when you describe the work, you risk dulling the ultimate effects of it. Stark’s movies, as described by the characters of the book, don’t live up to the hype they’ve created. They sound like mumblecore fare with a touch of Sofia Coppola; standard indie projects that populate every film festival. That’s not a knock against such films but their prominence as well as the tropes they so often use lessen the impact the reader is supposed to gain from hearing about Stark’s film-making skills.
North’s latest novel offers a memorable portrait of an unknowable women through the eyes of those who thought they knew her best; a striking study of art and the pains we put ourselves through to make it. While its star may be off-putting to some, it’s a fascinating tale with a unique structure and fearlessly ambiguous nature.