Readable, but ultimately shallow, and with a void of a central character at its core
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 22 March 2016
Anna North’s debut novel, an account of the life and times of an enigmatic film director told from the perspectives of those closest to her rather than the central character herself, is certainly readable and engaging, but ultimately unsatisfying. I galloped through the book over a weekend, but its faults loom large in the reading.
I agree with the minority of reviewers who found the depictions of filmmaking (and film criticism) somewhat vague and unconvincing, and Sophie’s career trajectory and critical acclaim for what sound like very minor efforts mostly implausible, but the biggest issue is Sophie herself. I am sure the author is well aware that all of the secondary characters in Sophie’s orbit are much more intriguing than Sophie, and that this is a somewhat intentional move, with the director both an enigma and a vacuum, something an absence of a person. Sophie very pointedly moves on from one individual to the next, taking what she needs in terms of artistic material and life support, and then absenting herself, leaving the art to speak for itself; she fairly obviously chooses to project the lives of others onto the screen because at her core she is herself, empty. This acknowledged as a deliberate device, it does leave the problem of Sophie remaining a fairly weak character around which to build a novel. Quite frankly, it is difficult to care what will happen to her, especially given how she chooses to behave with little to no explanation, and when it is very obviously signposted as to how she will end up. And on the journey, it is not at all clear why, for example, the three much more interesting people who fall head over heels for her (two male, one female) would be particularly interested in getting sucked into the Sophie machine, noting that her most intriguing facet is the films she makes, which in each case are lifted from events in her lovers’ lives.
On the plus side, there is a pleasingly modern and realistic depiction of female sexuality (albeit that the romantic obsession aspect doesn’t quite convince, for the reasons noted above); for me personally, the Allison character was quite compelling (I would rather read a whole book about her!), and the writing throughout is solid (that said, there is a touch of the writing class, perhaps, around some of the darker set-pieces). However, overall, the novel’s sense of progression is lacking, with no real plot to speak of, and no genuine moments of recognition that cause a reader to consider a book is really capturing the essence of life, art, success, failure, despair... And so on. A lack of story is sometimes forgivable, and perhaps would not even bear a mention in a deeper character study, but in the surface scratching we see here, it is noticeable by its absence.
Overall, a competently-written but very slight novel.
One person found this helpful