Cult-horror movie director and recluse Stanislas Cordova is the reason Scott McGrath’s investigative journalism career came to an abrupt stop a few years ago – he’d been trying to uncover secrets about the mysterious creator only to be silenced by not only his very own colleagues and contacts, but Cordova’s estate itself – in the form of a law suit. Since then, he’s had little work, barely sees his daughter and has to watch the woman he still loves move on with a new man. So when Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead in a derelict warehouse in Manhattan, Scott instantly comes to the conclusion that there is more at play than a police-ruled suicide. He does after all remember the words a mysterious caller told him in the years he’d been previously investigating Cordova – ‘he does something to the children’. Teaming up with two people who had contact with Ashley in her final days, Scott walks down a dangerous path of curiosity, revenge and obsession – but will what he finds bring him the peace of mind he was looking for or just further entangle him in the sinister web of the enigmatic director?
‘Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor.’ (Night Film by Marisha Pessl)
Told in a mixed media format, Night Film is one of those rare novels that merges into multiple genres absolutely seamlessly. It’s a thriller at the forefront but it verges on horror and literary family drama more often than not, so if you’re looking for a cheap throwaway beach read á la Girl on the Train or The Woman in the Window then this is not the book for you.
The complexities of each character within Night Film are really what propel this story into a completely new territory. Everyone has a back story and everyone is there for a reason. Our main character here, Scott McGrath is not a likeable protagonist, in fact he occasionally even verges on becoming an antagonist – a bit of an anti-hero I suppose. He’s selfish, puts his work before anything else and occasionally even shows strong signs of racism and sexism. I know a lot of readers struggle when being in the mind of an unlikable main character due to lack of a connection, but I do urge you to attempt this because at no point are you really expected to care all that much for him anyway.
Nora and Hopper, Scott’s oddball assistants, were definitely the two people I did care about though. Marisha Pessl creates a stream of information regarding their pasts that weaves it’s way in and out of the main and subplot so you’re not really sure what is relevant to the mystery and what isn’t. In doing so, she manages to maintain the impression of two broken, realistic and lovable youths who somehow seemed to entangle themselves in one of the world’s biggest mysteries.
Ashley Cordova was well realised despite the fact that she’s found dead at the beginning of the novel. There’s a level of spookiness and unpredictability to her character that throws you off just when you think you’re starting to understand what is going on. As for Stanislas Cordova – I have yet to see such effortless characterisation from any author, ever. He truly is an enigma. When you think of our real life equivalents – perhaps Kubrick or Hitchcock? – he doesn’t even compare. Think of a director whose movies end up becoming so jarring and grotesque that the only way to see them is to pay thousands of dollars for an illegal copy or to find clues to a hidden underground screening in the Paris catacombs. A man whose entire estate rivals Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and ends up being used as the primary setting for those movies. A man who nobody knows if they’ve ever really truly seen or if all the alleged real photos of him are just decoys. That’s the kind of mystery I genuinely want from a movie director. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m a true believer that the most artistic among us are also the most susceptible to lock themselves away and get taken over by their incessant need to create something incredible. I’m a dreamer at heart though so this whole plot line was destined to grab my attention.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the quality, excitement and anticipation were consistent throughout and there were a couple of chapters about three quarters of the way through that just let the pace down a little. At just under six hundred pages long with pretty small font – which in contrast to most thrillers is pretty damn excessive – this didn’t exactly feel like it was dragging on, but I do think there are some plot points that could have been removed or had less of an emphasis overall. The ending wasn’t my favourite, but it matched the tone of Night Film very well and left me feeling a bit shaken and lost – in the best of ways? More than anything this is a book about living outside the norm, relishing being different and pushing the boundaries of your existence. It’s all about diving into the depths of the ocean and to swim, and keep swimming…until you find where the mermaids sing.
‘Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out?’ (Night Film by Marisha Pessl)
Review written by Tilly.
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Marisha Pessl grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and now lives in New York City. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her debut novel, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. It won the 2006 John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize (now the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize), and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. (Author bio found on Goodreads)