Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

December 19, 2013

Author: Marisha Pessl
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9781400067886
Rating: ★★★★★
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Night Film is a surreal experience that takes the reader through countless twists and turns. Combining the elements of mystery, drama and suspense, it is a great read for fans of these genres. 

Ashley Cordova, daughter of legendary filmmaker Stanislas Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse. The police rule it as apparent suicide, but disgraced journalist Scott McGrath thinks that there is more than it meets the eyes. When Scott realises that the mysterious woman he had encountered a few days ago on his nightly jog could well have been Ashley, he jumps head on into investigating her death. McGrath has another reason to be so interested in Ashley- he thinks that Ashley’s father was responsible for his ruined career when he tried to investigate the reclusive director in the past.

This is a very difficult book to review. At more than 600 pages, it packs a powerful sucker punch. Reading Night Film is an experience, literally. It makes clever use of documentary evidence – web pages, police reports, magazine articles, handwritten notes, clippings et al. We read all of this first hand along with McGrath. Right from the first page, Night Film sucks you into its world, a world that is multi layered, that keeps spinning and changing, where the lines between truth and fiction are blurred and we never know if something is the truth or simply someone’s imagination.

Night Film is one of those rare books that defy any particular genre. It starts as a mystery but soon turn into a thriller and then a horror ride. It also deals with occult, black magic and through all of this, we are left gasping for the truth. The best part of the book is its writing. Pessl has done a terrific job of setting up the atmosphere. It is downright eerie and dark; there are scenes, especially the ones set in a posh, secret nightclub and on the vast 300-acre Cordova estate, that may send chills down your spine.

The story of Night Film revolves around Ashley Cordova. As McGrath and his two young assistants reconstruct Ashley’s last few days, we realise that she was a complex person, much more than we anticipated. Mystery shrouds her every step and they have an occult aura around them.

Behind all this looms the presence of reclusive Stanislas Cordova whose last public appearance was thirty years ago. In chasing Ashley, McGrath is in fact chasing Cordova, who is omnipresent throughout the book. Cordova’s films revel in the dark side of humanity. His films have achieved cult status and a huge fan following. McGrath thinks that there is something evil about Cordova. He does sinister things to children and Ashley is probably his biggest victim. As he tries to deconstruct the myth around Cordova, we begin to see the symbolic signatures of a Cordova movie. I kept wondering- Is this an elaborate set up and has McGrath landed himself smack in the middle of a new Cordova movie in the making? But then, the truth was stranger than that and much simpler. You may think the end dull, especially after the hell of a ride that the book gives you, but it appealed to my rationalist mind. It was like suddenly waking up from a nightmare and realising that the real world is a tranquil place filled with bright sunshine.

Does this mean that Night Film is flawless? No, it has its flaws but the book is such a wonderful ride that I gladly overlooked them. Not everybody may enjoy it the way I did but this book sure knows how to grab you by the lapels. After the first scene, chances are that you will not want to put it down, just like me.

Check out Marisha Pessl’s website, as well as the Guardian‘s and The New York Times‘ review of this book.

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