Narrated with exquisite attention to detail (with around to thirty pages dedicated to the bureaucratic nightmare of attempting to recover a stolen backpack abroad) in the second person (which seems initially strange but then proves perfect for a woman whose identity is increasingly defined by others), the wry humour seguing into the poignancy of her recent past renders this novel a less zany companion to The First Bad Man. The scenes satirising the film world, reminded me of the newly-conscious dogs “performing dogness” in Fifteen Dogs. While never revealing her real name, the narrator shows just enough of herself as the “less pretty” twin, self-conscious about the scars from teenage acne, to make her credible, but leaving sufficient anonymity for the reader to project onto her what we will. As Diana says towards the end of my own novel, Sugar and Snails, another tale of reinvention, it’s “an age-old cliché for young people to inflict themselves on the Third World to find themselves”; I don’t think I’ve come across anyone doing it quite as dramatically as the narrator of The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. It’s a novel well worth rereading for its lightness of touch and philosophical depth; thanks to Atlantic Books for my review copy.
Each of these point of view characters has an interesting story of their own which they share with the reader, some of which Sophie has purloined for her films. The first is a documentary about her college’s star basketball player on whom she has a crush which veered into stalking. The second is a version of a tale told at a stand-up session in a bar, and the third a dramatisation of the life of her husband’s deceased mother. But it’s when the reputation that she’s built from the success of these low-budget films heralds her big break, with the chance to shoot a film with known actors and someone else’s script that Sophie Stark starts to unravel.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is an unusual and highly engaging novel which questions the nature of authenticity and how much we can ever know another person. It’s also very much about the relationship between life and story, something I’ve been exploring on this blog, particularly in this post on storytelling as personal metaphor, and I’m saving some quotes from this novel for when I come back to this topic again. However, having just revealed another layer of the story behind my own story too, I’m alert to the risks of losing control of one’s story once it’s out in the world. As Allison says about being pushed to the limit in one of Sophie’s films (p29):
I’d gone to such trouble to tell a good story about my life, a story that was exciting and didn’t make me look bad, and now the cast and crew and anyone who saw the movie would see the other story anyway. They would see me letting Peter do something I didn’t want; they would see me fearful and helpless and struggling … Peter was taking my dignity away, and everybody knew it.
Those who haven’t yet given up on attempting to understand the publication circus might be interested to know that this debut novel first appeared in e-book format only. Thanks to Weidenfeld and Nicholson for my review copy of this year’s paperback release.
For other novels on the enigma of identity, see In Search of Solace and He Wants. For another on Hollywood, see Lucky Us. For more on documentary makers, see Sleeping on Jupiter and The Tusk That Did The Damage. Also, see my latest author Q&A for the movie trailer I’ve imagined for my own writing career (in response to a great question from Kirtida Gautam).