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Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

night filmOn a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.

For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself.

Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.

Night Film, the gorgeously written, spellbinding new novel by the dazzlingly inventive Marisha Pessl, will hold you in suspense until you turn the final page.

Last year, a dear friend and I were in New York, and happened to book tickets to Sleep No More. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an immersive play that re-enacts a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Scottish play in the setting of an old hotel. There are elaborate sets that you are encouraged to investigate and connect to, and the play moves about you, drifting from room to room, mainly without speech but always leaving an unsettling feeling upon your skin. While reading “Night Film”, the follow-up by Marisha Pessl to her wonderful debut novel, I found myself with some of the same sensations – a skin prickling, a sense of unease, a feeling that we are not necessarily being told the whole story. There’s something compelling about it – something that makes you uneasy, that makes you want to put it down and walk away – but you just cannot. At times deliciously creepy and others outright unsettling, this is a book that keeps you hooked on the details.

It’s difficult to say if the people in this book are good or evil, as we learn about our characters in pieces and half-told stories, part truth and part legend. Scott, broken from his lawsuit by the Cordovas and left rudderless in his own career, reveals his history in bits and pieces. Even his daughter doesn’t truly know him, keeping her distance by preferring to call him by his first name instead of “Daddy”. Throughout the novel, he questions his own vision and judgement, frequently wondering aloud if what he has experienced is real, and we are never entirely sure if what we are reading is a valid narrative. Nora defines herself through the memories and affectations of the people she has loved (and lost), a quirky bohemian who is young in age but old in spirit. Hopper is the most mysterious of the trio, truly bereft after the loss of his other half. Cordova is more myth than man, with an underground website slavishly devoted to his every move, movie and life moment. We are given a tonne of information about him, yet very little that is direct from the man himself. For me, he seemed to be a cross between Cronenberg and Kubrick, with some of Hitchcock’s quirks thrown in for good measure.

For me, this is a story of absences. With the death of Ashley Cordova, each character reveals themselves to be missing something in their lives. Scott is hiding out in his apartment without his daughter and ex-wife, Nora is living without her family, such as the characters of the old age home might have been, and even the elusive Hopper continues to search for something that – and someone who – is no longer there for him. The absences begin to spread, as people talk to Scott, Nora and Hopper, then vanish. Cordova himself is as powerful as he seems due to his physical isolation and removal from the day-to-day world, yet his influence ripples over everyone in the book, dictating their actions and consuming their thoughts.  What is unsaid is as important as what is said in this novel; I read it twice, and discovered new information each time.

Posters conceived by Marisha Pessl; Artwork by Kennedy-Monk - Credit to Marisha Pessl

Posters conceived by Marisha Pessl; Artwork by Kennedy-Monk – Credit to Marisha Pessl

The multimedia aspects of the book are intriguing. It’s a big book, and the use of website screen captures, reprinted articles and photo images draws you into the investigation as if you were the fourth in the group. There’s a good blend of fact and fiction, and I have friends who have actually tried to find the ‘underground homage’ site that plays a role in the novel. Pessl has put tremendous effort into the back story of this book, even going so far as to create fictional movie posters for some of Cordova’s films and a behind-the-movies style interview with a character of the novel. I’m interested to hear more about the Night Film app, and hope that it will continue to add to the story rather than reduce it to an affectation.

Having said all this, there is a need for the reader to buy into the mystical nature of the narrative in order for the story to work. There are some great scenes such as those in a Black Magic shop and a surreal experience within the Cordova compound that works best when you give into the mystical explanations. In the end, however, you are left to make your own decisions about what truly happened with Ashley, and with her father in his films. Like Scott, you will have to trust your own judgement after gathering all the information, and let it lead you to the truth you are most comfortable living with, accepting it for what it you want it to be.

Night Film was provided by the Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase from your friendly independent bookseller, and from Indigo. ISBN: 9781400067886, 624 pages

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