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Monday, 6 January 2014

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

There's always plenty of discussion in the book blogging world about the merits of the book-buying-ban. I'm pretty sure we've all given it a go at some point - some more successfully than others. While never declaring an official prohibition, I am always trying to restrain myself, avoid Netgalley, bypass the charity shops, and work my way through the mountain of books I already own. Consequently, towards the end of 2013 I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Having not set foot in a bookshop for...oh, at least a week...I felt I deserved to treat myself to something new. I picked up this hefty hardback that was the subject of quite a lot of intriguing buzz.

The story centres around the mysterious and reclusive Stanislas Cordova, an infamous director of horror films with a devoted cult following. His persona is shrouded in rumour and hearsay. He lives on an isolated and highly-guarded estate with his family, is rumoured to meddle in the occult, and hasn't been seen or interviewed in public in decades. So when his beautiful young daughter Ashley is found dead in a squalid New York apartment block, the press fall over themselves trying to find out what happened. None more so than investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who has a score to settle with Cordova after a past dispute with the director almost demolished his career.

Now here I have to tread carefully, as this is a novel with more twists than you can shake a stick at. There are so many intricate plot developments and side characters that it feels almost impossible to do it justice in a brief review without including a whole lot of spoilers. Just like the cover illustration, I felt like I was literally peeling off layer upon layer of mystery to get to the bottom of things. You will get pulled in to Pessl's New York, and the combination of photographs, web pages, e-mails etc. only serves to make events even more vivid in your head.

Isn't the cult of celebrity a strange thing? Sometimes it seems that the more somebody does to remove themselves from the public eye, the more media interest in them grows. Pessl uses this very cleverly to draw the reader into the novel. I was totally convinced by the legend of Cordova and could absolutely imagine myself as a Cordovite, going to great lengths to seek out his hard-to-find movies and obsessing with other fans over the minutiae of his work. I truly believed that Cordova was orchestrating his life and his legend on purpose, to inflate his own reputation and ensure his name remained infamous. But later, as the secrets of the family are revealed, I realised that the author is showing us how easy it is to buy into these myths that are perpetuated by the press. The Cordovas' story actually turns out to be a sad tale- imagine what it must be like to crave privacy and be denied it at every turn.

While the plot was intricate and engrossing, I unfortunately found the characterisation to be somewhat lacklustre. Other than Stanislas Cordova himself, who is barely a real presence in the novel at all, the protagonists are a bit one-dimensional and mundane. There is a half-hearted backstory about McGrath's failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter, but I struggled to become invested in this side-plot at all. Luckily the story is meaty enough for this not to affect my overall enjoyment too much.

The book also lost a few points in my eyes due to a silly false ending. About 100 pages from the end the story seems to be drawing to a satisfying and clever conclusion, but then there's one last 'twist' which I found to take things too far and rendered the finale completely implausible. It is a bit of a pet hate of mine when authors can't resist throwing in one too many unnecessary red herrings.

I thoroughly enjoyed Night Film at the time, but as a few weeks have passed I must admit my initial impressions have dulled slightly. I wonder if it's another one of those where my preconceptions have been coloured by the surrounding hype. It's a good read, and I have recommended it and passed my copy on to others.

Have any of you read this book? I would be really interested to hear what you thought!


  1. I finished this last week, although I haven't reviewed it. I liked it a bit more than you, as I absolutely loved it. I didn't actually mind the ambiguous ending - I think Pessl was deliberately leaving it open, as the whole book was about what is real and what isn't, including in films?

    1. I didn't mind the ambiguous ending too much, but I really loved the 'false' ending earlier in the book and thought that would have made a great conclusion (I hope you know which bit I mean - difficult not to spoil!).

  2. This sounds like an interesting book, maybe more complex than I want to read, and definitely too long to take a chance on. The fact that is about films is a plus. I appreciate your thoughts on the book, and I will keep it in mind for future reading.

  3. I felt exactly the same way about the ending! Just as in Gone Girl, the author had me going til the very end, when things just ended up feeling too contrived. Plus, I'm not even sure what happened at the end of Night Film. Cordova in the old folks' home or Cordova on the island? It's all a bit bizarre to me. Reading the comments from you and Sam (above) help.