The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

Who was the real Sophie Stark? She was an incredibly accomplished film director, who made films that were ‘more like life than life itself,’ but whose dedication came at a cost. Infuriating, enigmatic and distant, but brilliant, the life and death of Sophie Stark is told by the six people who knew her best.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

From the actress who can’t forget her, to the husband she betrayed, to the brother who couldn’t protect her. The film critic who followed her work avidly. The producer she uses. Her first film subject. These six people try and explain their version of Sophie Stark, and how she impacted their lives.

Sophie plunders the lives of those she loves, and who love her best, in the pursuit of making the best films. Allison, one of her starring actors, and her lover, is deliberately placed in an uncomfortable position to get the best out of her. The film about her husband’s dead mother, which he expected to be a moving tribute to the mother he lost, becomes something else: ‘a terrifying exposure of the insufficiency of love’. As Sophie says: ‘I knew I could either make it happy, or I could make it good.’ George, the film producer, agrees that she should be making her films good at any cost, only to be find himself on the suffering end of Sophie’s unflinching dedication to her art. In a way, I was reminded of stories of Stanley Kubrick, who famously bullied Shirley Duvall so much whilst shooting The Shining that her hair started to fall out. 

And yet none of the characters are able to move on from Sophie, continuing to see themselves through the prism she saw them. Daniel, who Sophie develops a disturbing crush on and becomes the subject of her first ever film, looks back and wonders what she saw in him, and whether it still exists. All of them continue to try and pinpoint exactly what they meant to Sophie, how important they were to her, yet none of them can even be sure what she meant to them. 

Anna North very cleverly and convincingly builds this ‘unknowable’ quality around Sophie. In the series of snapshots we’re shown, she is vividly drawn, with her small stature, her fondness for tinned peaches, and her huge all-seeing eyes, but she remains tantalisingly distant from us. The narrators, on the other hand, are all distinct and richly drawn. They leap off the page, and their own stories are just as interesting. In a way, you could be forgiven for whimsically wondering whether these rich and unforgettable stories were what Sophie hoped for all along. 

Complex, fascinating and tragic, but also a captivating page-turner, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is a book that will stay with me for a long time. 

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North is out out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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