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Delayed Rays of a Star

by Amanda Lee Koe

Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe X
Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 400 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2020, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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A wide-ranging historical novel featuring three women struggling to succeed in the film industry, Delayed Rays of a Star brings cinematic breadth to the intimate realities of the self.

Amanda Lee Koe's Delayed Rays of a Star begins with a late-1920s photo of three women at a party in Berlin who would go on to make names for themselves in the world of cinema: the German-born movie star Marlene Dietrich, the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl — director of Nazi propaganda films. Using this photo as an anchoring device, the novel spins off into elaborate fictionalized accounts of the three women's lives through World War II and beyond.

If this conceit sounds a bit twee in theory, it's taken to impressive depths in practice. The novel remains as committed to serious examinations of human behavior as to its unique and captivating style. In fact, these two elements prove to be inseparable.

Koe tweaks and teases language with a playful touch that extends to the titles of each of the novel's nine parts, including gems like "The Malayan Orangutan Has the Key to the Basement of the Leipzig Zoo" and "The Failed Socio-Situationist Sculptor in Düsseldorf." In addition, the plot is presented in a spirited non-linear format that circles its subjects at various points over a span of decades. The narration sometimes skims over what seem like major events at a fast clip, but it isn't afraid to cast an unwavering gaze on just about anything — from Leni's involvement with Hitler, to the racism Anna May experiences in Hollywood, to the particular size and shape of Marlene's excrement.

As seems natural considering its focus on the world of film, Delayed Rays of a Star explores the facades people adopt for the survival of their private and public selves. It examines how surface impressions and imagery can be both dangerous and vital. Leni's stubborn desire for "authenticity" in her wartime film Tiefland, which she nevertheless believes has "nothing to do with reality," is displayed alongside Anna May's attempts to invent her own craft within the limited range directors allow her as an Asian woman. We additionally see how Marlene draws long-lasting throngs of admirers with her bold persona but struggles with close relationships.

The novel also shows the softer human traits that lurk beneath facades. Early on, Anna May and Marlene have a brief affair, the aftereffects of which linger more meaningfully than either lets on. A member of the lighting team for Tiefland reflects on his feelings for the older man who trained him. In a later timeline, 88-year-old Marlene nurses a romance-tinged obsession with a young man who occasionally recites poetry to her over the phone, going so far as to believe that applying makeup will expedite a call from him:

...now that she wanted something from the universe again, Marlene was prepared to make some effort, for surely her physical energy conducted itself irresistibly into the invisible forces governing this planet and its abstruse connections.

Passages like this that paint a bedridden Marlene with a sympathetic and slightly humorous touch are eminently charming; a similar focus on Leni's character as she begins to work alongside Hitler may give pause. But Koe's portrayal of her is a thoughtful one that shows the insidious effects of her self-serving attempts at political neutrality. We see how Leni uses her justifiable outrage about a single issue, the misogynistic harassment and abuse she experiences as a woman filmmaker, to justify her complicity in the Holocaust to herself and others. Intimate moments with this character can be chilling.

The perspectives of those within the world of entertainment are joined by others from outside of it. Marlene's maid, a young Chinese woman called Bébé, knows Marlene as an old woman in need of care rather than a beloved actress. Ibrahim, a delinquent youth whose German father abandoned his Turkish mother, takes an interest first in Marlene and then in Bébé, who he tries to get to know despite the language barrier between them. In a different novel, Ibrahim and Bébé might be reduced to tragic side characters, not entirely unlike the ones Anna May tires of playing in films. In Delayed Rays of a Star, however, they're taken as seriously as their famous counterparts, and are presented as autonomous beings.

The loose structure of the novel, which at times appears haphazard, may not be to some readers' tastes. But this wandering is part of its magic. Like the cinematic professionals she features, Koe seeks to create an immersive tone and style that speaks for itself, and she succeeds.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2019, and has been updated for the June 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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