Review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

This book snuck up on me. I was in a mood when I bought it and looking for a bookish fix, and I didn’t really think I’d found it. I half expected I would find it on my shelf in a few years, forgotten. But that didn’t happen. I picked it up a few weeks later and read it almost in one sitting. It was brilliant.

IMG_20170911_222817_266.jpgThe novel focuses on the eponymous Sophie Stark, as seen by six people in her life. I loved the separation of the narrative between narrators, and the style of the writing. The voices are each distinct and personal, following their own contained narrative arcs which link with each other in surprising and intriguing ways. I found Allison and Jacob’s voices a little similar, but not at all a downside. Their relationships to Sophie bear such interesting parallels that the echoes between their personalities make perfect sense.

North’s use of narrators also allows for a sense of danger and circling around Sophie herself which creates an undercurrent of tension. The character is created clearly without ever giving us the luxury of a full explanation, without the chance to look inside her head. She is made empathetic without the need for complete understanding, which is crucial to the story. Sophie struggles to be understood, and so never has the chance to describe herself to us.

The structuring of the book is cleverly done. The only section not presented chronologically is the first. Allison shows us Sophie on her second project, and Robbie then goes back to show us her first, which has already been referred to. This is crucial to our first impression of Sophie: we see her initially as a woman approaching Allison with a plan, as someone who is in control of a creative vision. Robbie then comes in to fill in how she got there, and the project which came before; we now get to see some of her oddities and struggles.

I found the writing dreamy to sink into: surreal and beautiful, with an incredible flow. Reading in one sitting was definitely beneficial to my experience – I was completely caught up in the detail of the settings, the characters, the enigma of Sophie Stark. The stories-within-stories reminded me in some ways of Olive Kitteridge; there is a lot going on around the central character, not all of which directly links in plot but all of which feeds in thematically.

This book finds surprising and sympathetic ways to consider creativity and isolation, expectation, public and private lives, communication and relationships. I was swept away by the atmosphere of it, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a distinctive character-driven read.

Book Only

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