“Delayed Rays of A Star” by Amanda Lee Koe

Genre:  Historical FictionDelayed Rays
Publisher:  Doubleday Books
Publication Date:  July 9, 2019

Spanning the 1920s to 2003, this sprawling novel is expertly woven with characters who are powerfully alive.  Koe’s novel was inspired by a 1928 photograph taken in Berlin of then up and coming real-life actresses, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl, at a party in Berlin.marleneFor those who don’t know these film icons, Marlene Dietrich was a gender-bending.  German actress who was one of the highest-paid Hollywood stars in her day.  Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American actress to achieve international acclaim.   Leni Riefenstahl was an actress turned director of Nazi propaganda films as well as nonpolitical films.

There are two moving secondary characters in the novel.  There is a Chinese maid who was a onetime sex-trafficked prostitute.  She now takes care of an old and difficult reclusive woman who happens to be Marlene Dietrich.  And there is a gay German soldier who had worked in films before the war.  He was recruited off the battlefield to be a film crew member with Riefenstahl.  He is mourning the lover he watched die in battle. Through his character, one gets glimpses of the average young German soldier’s thoughts during the war.  Not at all different than from those they were fighting.  “Please God let me live through this war…Why am I crawling in the mud when the bigwigs that started the war are safely sitting at home?”  Both characters are written in a way that will break your heart without being saccharine.

The ambiguous novel takes on many subjects:

There is sexuality.   Marlene Dietrich’s public image included openly defying sexual norms.  She was known for her androgynous dressing fashion sense.  Dietrich was the Hollywood legend who made being queer acceptable, even downright sexy.  Men and women both drooled over her and she famously bedded both.  How she got away with this in that period of time is quite a feat.   Perhaps it was her narcissist personality traits that helped her pull it off.   Still, while America adored her, Germany was angry and disowned her.  Marlene remained Marlene until the end of her life.   The author writes a scene of her maid holding her nose while cleaning an antique Limoges pitcher the 88-year-old uses as a bedpan.  In her famous throaty voice, she hollers at the maid, “Everyone should be glad I can still pee.”  For her funeral, she requested that red and white carnations be distributed to those who attended.  A red carnation would be handed to those who slept with Dietrich and a white one to those who didn’t.  She fantasized fistfights over ‘You slept with her and I didn’t!’ These laugh out loud moments are written to perfection.  (This reviewer googled an interview with Marlene’s daughter and learned that this was indeed her mother’s funeral wish.  Her mom would have been very disappointed if she knew it wasn’t carried out).

There is racism.  Despite being born in California, and the daughter of parents who were themselves born here, Wong was only offered bad/evil woman Chinese character roles.  She was never a lead character.  The Chinese were as furious with her as the Germans were of Dietrich.  A moving scene in the book happens when she is in China for a publicity tour.   Wong is criticized by a film critic for taking stereotypical roles.  She tries to explain that as a non-white in America life can be hard.  She fiercely fought for different roles.  She desperately wanted the lead role in the film “The Good Earth.”  The movie takes place in turn-of-the-century China.  She thought she had it.  She was deep into preparation, giving ideas and costume suggestions when she received a phone call informing her that the role went to a white actress.  The reason: She was too Chinese.

There is sexism.  Leni Riefenstahl was an accomplished filmmaker, one of the first of female filmmakers of her generation.  Still, she is easy not to like.  She received financial support from Hitler but, after the fall of the Nazi regime, claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust.  Koe paints her as willfully unknowing.  Leni is written in a way that one can ‘almost’ understand where she is coming from.  Since she was a woman, no one was willing to take her seriously as a director and back her films.  She took money where she could and concentrated on her art.  Like Anna May, she was forced to take whatever she got in order to perform.  In 1993 there was a documentary made about her, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.”  Maybe, this is why she is the only one of the three who gets an entire section in her own voice.

Koe’s debut novel shows that she is a master storyteller.  Clearly, her talent comes from being a fellow of the International Writing Program of Iowa and a fiction editor of Esquire Singapore as well as the editor of the National Museum of Singapore’s film journal.  “Delayed” will appeal to a wide variety of readers:  Fans of historical fiction centering on women, film buffs, gossipy stories, and those who enjoy WWII political novels that feel like nonfiction–in other words, for fans of all genres.

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