Over my last few years of bookselling, I’ve noticed a growing sub genre of literary fiction: Protagonists written in sharp and unapologetic form, packaged with a cover quote from Lena Dunham. We meet steely anti-heroes – reminiscent of Dunham’s Girls’ flawed and uncomfortably relatable character, Hannah Horvath.
“Thriller-paced, with mysteries revealed at every turn” is Dunham’s cover quote for Anna North’s second novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.
We follow the life (and death) of Sophie Stark through six biographers who meet her at different stages of her career as a filmmaker. Her lover, her brother, her stalking victim, her husband, her colleague, a journalist.
They are telling their story from memory, reliving their naivety towards the magnetic, yet emotionally manipulative effects of Sophie’s intense and insular world. It’s not that Stark doesn’t care about these people – they inform and motivate her work greatly – it’s just that ultimately the success of her films are more important than they are. Sophie spends so much time in her own head that there’s little compassion for the people around her.
Each biographer’s chapter is intersected with film reviews and articles by R. Benjamin Martin, who has a strong interest in following Sophie’s career. What I liked about these reviews is that they indirectly create a moving, yet cohesive timeline of the development of Sophie’s body of work while providing perspective and views from a wider audience that is outside of the immersive bubble to which the rest of the story sits. This tool which North uses constantly reaffirms that the characters can only understand a portion of Sophie’s personality and why she acts the way she does.
What keeps Sophie Stark gripping, is the coercive stride of the story and the yearning for character resolution (despite the spoiler in the title.) While Sophie Stark has a “thriller-pace”, it’s not quite “grip lit”. It doesn’t reach new literary heights but it does tackle some hefty topics – such as sexual assault and self harm. It’s an engrossing character study of a complicated woman who has a yearning to create, no matter the cost. I devoured it in one weekend.
Other Lena Dunham cover quoted books are:
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Shrill by Lindy West
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida