Period Fiction Reviews

Groovin’ with the divas: Review of ‘Delayed Rays of a Star’ by Amanda Lee Koe

Oomph factor: Wong (second from left) and Dietrich (middle) in a scene from ‘Shanghai Express’.  

A chance photo of three film luminaries taken at a party in Berlin in 1928 by Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt sets the premise for Delayed Rays of a Star, Amanda Lee Koe’s dazzling first novel.

The three women thus frozen are at crucial points in their careers. They are Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl, each a pathbreaker in her own right, each of who successfully transitioned from silent films to the sound era.

Groovin’ with the divas: Review of ‘Delayed Rays of a Star’ by Amanda Lee Koe

Big break

Anna May Wong was the first ever Chinese American, indeed Asian American, actress to grace the silver screen in Hollywood. Owing to her ethnicity, however, she never got cast in a lead role despite her superior acting skills; the big studios only wanted her for stereotypical roles that fit her appearance. Frustrated at being reduced to playing a side character or villain in Hollywood, and desperate for the big break, she found herself in Europe in the late 1920s, exploring acting opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic. In the book she bumps into Marlene Dietrich, a dancer looking to make it in films, at a party. The two strike sparks off each other right away.

Leni Riefenstahl, the other lady in the frame, went on to become one of the most admired and reviled personalities in film history.

Like Dietrich, Riefenstahl started her career as a dancer before an injury led her towards acting. While she had a very successful stint as an actress, she is better known as a director of Nazi propaganda films, chiefly Triumph des Willens and Olympia, both of which set a standard in filmmaking that still wows students of the craft. Known for her technical brilliance and innovative camera work, Riefenstahl was the darling of the film festivals circuit. Till the end of the war, that is, when her work began to be seen in a new light.

Dietrich, of course, needs no introduction. Riding on the success of six films made with the legendary Josef von Sternberg, most notably Shanghai Express in which she starred with Wong — the two scandalously creating more chemistry with each other than Dietrich with Clive Brook, the male lead — the charismatic German went on to achieve the status of a pop culture icon.

Dietrich was a sex symbol and diva, openly bisexual, preferring to dress in trousers and coats in an era when women strived to look dainty and, well, womanly. During the war Dietrich and Riefenstahl were on opposite sides of the divide, both eventually paying the price for their loyalties.

Difficult women

The novel follows the three stars as their lives intersect, collide and diverge over the decades in which the story takes place. Adding to this already formidable cast is Bebe, an illegal Chinese immigrant in France, maid to the now old and wasted Dietrich whose past comes to her in fits and starts in the dark safety of her Paris apartment. She scolds, bullies and cajoles the unflappable but obedient young girl, the bond between them truly heartwarming. And she waits for a call from a secret admirer, a man she calls Bogie because Casablanca plays on TV and in her head.

The novel encompasses many themes — gender and sexuality, identity, politics, war, film history, to name a few — and manages to always remain contemporary. Mar-lay-na is clearly the star of the show, though Wong is the one who slips into your heart. But it’s Riefenstahl who is probably the most interesting of the three. It’s difficult to like her. She lies compulsively and unconvincingly, both to herself and to you, the reader. She’s envious, suspicious, boastful and uncaring, her proclamations of innocence always ringing false. At the same time her thorough professionalism impresses, and one can see how she might be a role model to those chasing perfection.

Delayed Rays of a Star is a hard novel to summarise or critique. Koe’s prose shimmers, and even secondary characters and backstories are so well lit that it’s impossible not to sit back and applaud. But it’s not an easy book to read. As period fiction that deals with the imagined private histories of famous personalities, it trips you up every so often because you simply don’t have the background info. Gossip and information about the actors are available on the Internet, of course, but in order to keep up with the book, one ends up spending way too much time carrying out parallel research, and soon exhilaration gives way to exhaustion.

The writer is the author of Jobless Clueless Reckless, a novel about teenagers.

Delayed Rays of a Star; Amanda Lee Koe, Bloomsbury, ₹499


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