The Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe
Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing
Fiction: Historical Fiction, 400 pages
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
When a photographer captures Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl in one frame at a party in Berlin in 1928, no one realizes the extent to which their lives will reflect the tumultuous decades that follow. Marlene crosses the Atlantic to find fame in Hollywood, the town that eats out of the palm of her hand till her wrinkles begin to show. After establishing her position as a filmmaker, Leni watches her fame turn to notoriety following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Nine and a half times out of ten films, the side characters played by Anna May must die so the white male lead can be returned to his white paramour on the screen. In the murky world these women navigate, their choices will be held up to the test of time. And the real question is, how much has anything changed?
This fierce and exquisite novel about womanhood, ambition, and art, played out against the shifting political tides of the twentieth century, introduces a mesmerizing new literary talent for our times.
About the author:
Amanda Lee Koe is the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for her first short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic which was also shortlisted for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s Internationaler Literaturpreis, and the Frankfurt Book Fair’s LiBeraturpreis. The working manuscript for her first novel, Delayed Rays of a Star , won the Henfield prize
Thank you Bloomsbury India for this ARC. All opinions are my own.
This is historical fiction at its best with a real life photo of the enigmatic star Marlene Dietrich, the exotic Anna May Wong and an almost haughty Leni Riefenstahl taken at a party in Berlin in 1928 being the opening. The book follows the three pioneering divas: Marlene, a star who refused to be boxed in any category in terms of her sexual choices or her professional career choices; Anna Wong who is expected to play just two stereotypical Chinese tropes (the evil woman and the sacrificing Chinese woman) in Hollywood films and film director Leni Riefenstahl whose technical expertise in film making was overshadowed by her association and public praise of Hitler. The focus is on their lives, many of which are based on facts and their innermost thoughts, mostly fictional but also based on interviews and statements from the late 20s on to the very early 2000s by which time, only Riefenstahl is left alive.
The book is an ode to the craft of film making: its creative beauty and the struggles it entails, the politics and the star system, the stereotypes that cinema enforces and maintains, creative partnerships and studio decisions, the disdain and dispensability of actors after a certain age- all of this juxtaposed in the backdrop of the politically fraught era of the prelude to the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, the racial segregations that played out on screen where actors belonging to different races could not be portrayed having romantic or intimate relations.
I totally loved the way the narrative went back and forth in time and through the lives of the three women protagonists brought in fictional characters that are integral to the politics of the book: a maid and housekeeper who looks after Dietrich, someone who is a victim of sex trafficking and who gets refugee status later but who continues to face racial discrimination and token charity job hand outs and the man who comes into her life, of mixed race and who calls Dietrich as a dare set up by David Bowie to recite Rilke on the phone.
I had no idea about Anna May and Leni Riefenstahl and right after seeing the photo, had to look up on both of them and then comparing the way their real lives intersected as portrayed in the book: Dietrich and Anna May working on a film together after the Berlin party a film part that Riefenstahl was aiming for which went to Dietrich. The voices of all three are distinct but I enjoyed Riefenstahl’s cinematic views the most: fictional though it might be, her (fictional?) take down of Susan Sontag who was critical about her photography work on the Nubia tribes in Africa. The cinephile in me was laughing out loud at Leni’s reaction when she watched the final moments of the film Titanic –why couldn’t the wooden door fit both Jack and Rose in the ocean even as I was uncomfortable about her blind admiration of Hitler.
I would say, read this if you love historical fiction. Read it if you love films. Read it for the strong women who take life on the shins. Brilliant!