A Portrait of the Artist As an Insecure Genius

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is a gem full of complex personalities, tragic yet redeeming circumstances, and striking conversations and judgments.

Literature has long held a tradition of telling stories through multiple perspectives. Rather than convey the plot through the viewpoint of a single character (or omniscient narrator), these works alternate speakers with every section. Whether the purpose is a communal consideration of a situation (like in As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver) or a person (like in Rant by Chuck Palahniuk and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout), their structural gimmicks typically guarantee an engrossing, complex, and surprising journey, as the diverse dispositions of each player keep things fresh and unexpected from chapter to chapter.

Of course, this style also comes with inherent risks that, while not certain, are more likely to happen than with a straightforward, singular account. For instance, the plot of a novel may suffer a bit (lacking in detail, expansiveness, or cohesion, for instance) if a new presenter appears regularly, as he or she will break up the flow to spend a lot of time analyzing the subject (so there will be fewer substantial events in the storyline). Likewise, if there are several equally important guides, none of them may be as fleshed out as they would if they were the only one we follow, and as a result, the audience may not care about any of them enough.

As with every experimental approach to art, this subsection of fiction has yielded plenty of successes and failures over the years. Fortunately, though, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North definitely belongs in the former category. “Told from the perspectives of those who knew Sophie best—her brother, her girlfriend, [and] her husband [among others],” the book offers one riveting, comprehensive, and ultimately moving account after another. Through these reflections, readers become enveloped not only in the essence and circumstances of Stark herself, but also in the histories, feelings, and traits of those who remember her. North creates vivid and relatable characters whose reactions, exchanges, and decisions are intriguing yet wholly realistic and unspectacular, allowing each moment to radiate subtle beauty and sincerity. By the end of it, Stark has affected the reader’s life as much as she has any around her.

Although Stark [obviously] never tells the audience anything herself, she’s still incredibly multilayered, mysterious, and unique because everyone else describes her so well. In fact, almost everything she says or does carries weight and significance (even if it’s a simple remark or action), culminating in an extremely well-defined character that you either dislike, empathize with, or flat out don’t understand (on purpose) depending on the context. For example, after setting up the experiences that led to her meeting Stark, her [girl]friend Allison recounts her first impression of Stark, and in doing so, readers immediately get a strong sense of who both women are:

I guess I thought I could fool people … I hadn’t expected this little stranger standing in front of me, acting like she knew something about my life … I was annoyed with her for pegging me so well. I told all kinds of little lies about my life … to people I met … I’d always gotten away with it, and I was happy to be able to make my own past and have people accept it. But I sometimes hoped somebody would catch me out, so I could feel like they really knew me. And the first person to do it was a girl who didn’t know me at all.

Another wonderful example of how skilled North is at saying a lot in only a few words comes when Robbie (Sophie’s younger brother) talks about their strained relationship. After mentioning that their mother was “sad and indecisive” and into Jesus but “never that into us,” he contemplates how his sister always appeared to him:

Sometimes I assumed that because Sophie didn’t care what was going on around her, she didn’t understand it either. I was always wrong … I wondered if Sophie wanted to be like this, showing up in my life just for a second, asking for nothing … all of my strongest memories of Sophie were of her leaving … she had night terrors that made her howl in fear with her eyes wide open, and I was the only one who could comfort her. I’d put my two hands around her head and squeeze gently, like I was holding her brains together, and slowly she’d calm down and sleep.

Not only is The Life and Death of Sophie Stark a brilliant character study, but it also serves as an fascinating commentary on the balance between morality, artistry, genius, and integrity. As Stark evolves from being an amateur photographer to a critically acclaimed avant-garde filmmaker, she manipulates, lies, and/or stalks her subjects and crew to achieve her ambitions as organically and fully as possible.

In other words, she’ll do anything to get a real reaction or a perfect take, and while she never really does anything too irredeemable, she nonetheless crosses the line a few times to make her masterpieces. However, history is full of creative minds whose extreme methods have resulted in some of the most groundbreaking and revered pieces of all time, so readers must decide if Stark is justified or not.

Along the same lines, it’s clear that she’s as vulnerable and brave as anyone else during the process, which adds yet another layer to her character. In fact, North even includes a running account of Stark’s career and assumed intentions via several film reviews from a fictional writer (R. Benjamin Martin, whose pretentious tone is its own satire of pop culture criticism). In his final assessment of Stark, Martin expresses how she actually gave his life purpose, concluding:

I still don’t understand her—that is, I don’t feel I know what she was thinking at any point in her life. This continues to worry me; when I watch her films now, I’m always looking for clues … I believe it pained Sophie how poorly other people understood her, how little she could make herself understood, how easy it was to turn her into an angel or a monster.

It’s nearly impossible to truly explain what makes The Life and Death of Sophie Stark so remarkable; as clichéd as it sounds, this is a book that must be experienced to fully appreciate. Suffice it to say that North crafted a gem full of complex personalities, tragic yet redeeming circumstances, and striking conversations and judgments. Her language strikes a lovely balance between poeticism and practicality too, making each sentence graceful and luminous without prioritizing stylishness over substance.

In the end, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is utterly captivating, surprising, and rewarding. You won’t forget about it (or her) for a long time.

RATING 9 / 10