I can’t quite describe this book, but I also can’t stop thinking about it.
I will take any chance to read about Anna May Wong, the Chinese American silent film actress, which was the immediate draw for me towards Amanda Lee Koe’s Delayed Rays of a Star. I excepted Koe’s debut to be the usual historical fiction novel: a linear, mostly true account of the lives and adventures of 1940s icons Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich, and Leni Riefenstahl. It was those things, but Delayed Rays of a Star really ended up feeling like more than that; it was a series of character studies and reflections on human nature, a book that I find myself thinking about months after I read it.
Koe’s inspiration for the book was a real photograph of Wong, Dietrich, and Riefenstahl taken at a party in 1928 Berlin. From that fateful party the book pings off in different directions, not sticking to any linear narrative path. Its vignette-style chapters and timeline make it hard to summarize easily beyond simply: the lives of three incredible women and the intersections of the people who cross their paths. The book crosses time and space jumping from the 1930s, to WWII, to the 1960s and highlighting different historical points along the way. Koe never gives a first-hand account of a specific moment, for example Leni Riefenstahl’s experience of Kristallnac (the Night of Broken Glass) is from afar, during her trip in America to sell one of her movies and she tells the press that reports of the violence are slander. Then again the fall of the Berlin Wall is experienced via television by a bedridden Dietrich, late in life and a fight with cancer, but she doesn’t look away from the screen for hours because as long as she didn’t move, “she could be part of a huge party that would never come to an end.” By staying removed from those events and experiencing them from a limited point of view, there’s a dramatic tension throughout the book, not only because of the time period, but also because it exposes the uneasy ways each person navigates their lives.
Delayed Rays of a Star moves through different periods of time in the lives of the main three women, but Koe will also spend chapters focusing on minor characters and how their lives are nominally affected by their contact with the main three. This cast ranges from Bebe, the maid charged with taking care of Dietrich in Paris, to Hans Haas, a crew member on Riefenstahl’s film, and Walter, a European writer and pen pal to Wong. At first I was surprised to see how much of the book didn’t include entire sections about Wong, Dietrich, and Riefenstahl, but once I got used to the style I saw how it opened up the worlds within this book. None of the characters have easy lives and all are influenced by the tragic experiences of the era they live in: a world at war, rampant racism and sexism, and the stratification defining their lives.
“All their faces would be forgotten; why should hers be remembered? She felt sick, guilty, fatigued.This was not a party. It was a parody of a cycle she could not explain.”“Delayed Rays of a Star,” Amanda Lee Koe
It made for an introspective read, reflecting on all the finite details you can never know about a person’s life. None of it was particularly comforting, nor heartbreaking, all I felt when I finished the book was a feeling of, “Huh, interesting.” I liked the book, but couldn’t write a bullet point list of its pros and cons. Even as I’m trying to find quotes from the book that could explain what I mean, I’m at a loss because almost none of it makes sense taken out of context. I think that the lack of any strong feeling towards the story is its biggest flaw, the feeling that I didn’t come out of reading it having gained a certain perspective or insight. However, that’s probably my own bias since I tend to read traditional narrative fiction, stories that follow a simple story arc with a clear moral at the end. This one, as it wound its way around time and space, took its time to grow on me. Once I realized the meditative nature of what was happening, I could adjust my mindset and expectations. Even now as I recommend it to people and write this review, I feel like my description is inadequate. This is one of those books that when I first finished it, I liked it. But as morse time went on, I found myself thinking back on it more; its themes, the characters, the writing. A perfect mix of pop and literary fiction.
It was only as I was writing this review, months after I finished the book, that I truly appreciated the title, Delayed Rays of a Star. Light from the sun and the stars doesn’t reach earth for millions of years, and what we’re actually looking at are dying pinpoints somewhere out in space. That’s a bit what it’s like now to look back on the past and the people who lived in––or in the cases for Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich, and Leni Riefenstahl, defined it. This book can’t be summed up neatly, it’s far too complex and intricate for that––which, I think, is the point. But I do suggest you read it, think about it, and then like any form of great art, go back to it again.