Before they would become international cinematic legends, three actresses meet at a party…
Since picking up the prestigious Singapore Literature Prize in 2014 for her short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic, Amanda Lee Koe has been keeping busy, working on her debut novel. Today, Delayed Rays of a Star finally hits bookstores, and it is nothing short of an awe-inspiring epic that you might expect from four years of dedication.
It is one of the most impressively executed novels I have read, given its ambitious concept. A historical fiction, Delayed Rays takes the reader across decades and continents, anchored by its re-imagination of the inner lives of three real-life international cinematic legends – Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl – against the tumultuous backdrop of the Nazi regime. The novel opens in 1928, at a party in Berlin where the three women, still up-and-coming actresses at the time, meet by chance and pose for a photograph together. The actual photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt is reproduced in the novel (and below), providing a visual reminder that many of the story events are based on history.
The photograph and the party serve as the jumping-off point for the novel to dive into each woman’s lives in the decades that follow. Prior to reading the novel, I had only known of Anna May Wong and never even heard of Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. It was fascinating to learn of their lives through this historical fiction, which treads between the way the world sees them and the way they see themselves.
Anna May, Marlene and Leni each get their own chapters that zoom into their personal experiences as they work to advance their acting (and also, for Leni, directing) careers and confront the price of fame. But Delayed Rays refuses to stick to a linear chronology, going back and forth in time and using historical and cultural references as subtle markers of a different time. Koe also introduces many side or minor characters that take over a chapter.
This structure can feel disorienting – I often get confused by the relative timeline between events, whether what I’m reading precedes or happens after the event in the previous chapter – and slows down the overall pace. But Koe’s sure and steady writing ultimately keeps the story tight and engaging. A few of the side characters, such as Marlene’s Chinese maid Bebe and the lighting staff on Leni’s film production team, become some of the novel’s most memorable characters.
Koe has a brilliant and rare gift for making some heavy and serious topics engrossing to read, with sprinklings of absurd humour, while still getting their complexity across. Both Marlene and Leni are entangled with the Nazi regime, Leni especially so, as she sparks a lot of controversy for her Nazi propaganda films and her relationship with Joseph Goebbels and Hitler himself. The novel explores how aware and intentional she was in creating Nazi propaganda, raising questions about whether we can and should separate art from politics, and art from the artist. In Hollywood, Anna May also faces a difficult road to fame, dealing with racism and struggling to find home in the diaspora. (Here I also have to commend Koe for using actual Chinese characters, not hanyu pinyin italicised or not – it’s the first time I have seen it in any published English story.)
Epic and intimate at the same time, Delayed Rays looks at the way we remember the famous – through their most notable works, through the struggles they went through and the sacrifices they made to get famous, and through their personal relationships. Those who love history, film or, better yet, film history, will be captivated by this highly intelligent and sensitive novel. While the three main characters may have their stardom delayed at the start and uncertain towards the end, Koe’s career as a writer can only grow brighter from here.
Delayed Ray Of A Star is now available in bookstores today (9 July 2019). We would like to thank Pansing for providing us with an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review.