When Emily Buckley, nicknamed ‘Crazy Emily’ by her classmates, applies to college, she decides to change her name to Sophie Stark. Later in this novel, she explains her choice; as a teenager, she took a bus to an art museum in Chicago, where she saw a photograph of a woman. ‘She was wearing a man’s suit and a hat, and she was looking right at the camera with this kind of half smile like she knew exactly how the photo was going to turn out and it was going to be great. I remember I just looked at the photo and I thought, Yes, this is how I’m going to be. And the card next to it said “Self-Portrait, by Sophie Stark.”‘ As Sophie becomes semi-famous as a film director, she thinks back to this photograph, as she explains to a producer, George, one of the narrators of her story: ‘I tried to find her last year. I just wanted to see what her life was like. But I couldn’t even find the photo again. When I search for the name, I just get me.’ Sophie’s protective persona has become her only reality.
This vignette could serve as a metaphor for the whole of Sophie’s story, narrated to us in this novel via six different voices, although we never hear from Sophie herself. Sophie struggles with who to be in the world from her earliest days at school. After trying out the life of a ‘normal girl’ at college and finding it wanting, she turns the pursuit of her unattainable crush, Daniel, into her first film, as if watching Daniel from behind a camera legitimises her watching him. As Sophie’s career develops, she continues to seem both utterly self-centred and completely self-forgetting. It’s as if, without a defined personality of her own, she needs to try on other people’s. And yet our six narrators are all captivated by her personally – her lack of interest in what others think of her, her odd confidence, her uncompromisingly broad shoulders.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is one of those delightful novels that seems to shift you towards a brighter, clearer way of looking at things while you are reading it – in this case, as if you were seeing things through Sophie’s directorial eyes. Sophie herself almost succeeds as the character that Anna North wanted to make her. Occasionally, she dips slightly towards affectation or artifice, as when she tells her brother she didn’t start speaking until he was born because she didn’t see the point of talking to anyone before then, and the novel traces the very familiar theme of the artist who struggles to engage with the real world. Nevertheless, for most of her story, she works, and hence the novel works as well. While the six narrators are interesting in their own right, they are also essentially mouthpieces for Sophie – which is why the blurring of their narrative voices, which can be a problem in novels with multiple narrators, doesn’t matter so much here. This is a novel that needs a dominant mood, even if it slightly sacrifices the individuality of its cast – with the obvious exception of Sophie – to achieve it.
Throughout this novel, Sophie passes on little facts from narrator to narrator, showing that she remembers all the things that they have said to her even though most of them think that they matter less to her than she does to them. ‘”You know how people say you can tell your health from your toenails?” she says to her ex-girlfriend, Allison. Allison replies, “I’ve never heard anyone say that,” but Sophie has; her husband Jacob told her long ago, although he believes she ignored him when he said it. Sophie’s tendency to suck up colour from her surrounding, like litmus paper, seems to have begun when she took Sophie Stark’s name. Now when she searches for herself, she finds she has obliterated both Emily Buckley, and the original Sophie Stark. As one of the narrators says near the end of the novel, ‘Maybe she wanted to offload the responsibility for the name at least onto somebody else.’ But he still believes that the photograph was real.