DELAYED RAYS OF A STAR
By Amanda Lee Koe
Bloomsbury/ Paperback/ 391 pages/ $25.74/Major bookstores/4 stars
Singaporean writer Amanda Lee Koe's scintillating debut novel begins with a photo of three women in 1928 Berlin - Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl, each on the cusp of legend.
It then spins outwards, catching stories of glamour, migration and womanhood in a shimmering web stretched across space and time.
The novel carries itself with the grandeur of a lost classic. It is stylishly cosmopolitan and ambitiously peripatetic, cutting from Berlin and the Bavarian Alps to Beijing and more.
Dietrich and Riefenstahl have long been considered foils - both German, close in age and in competition (so Riefenstahl claimed) for the role of femme fatale Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930), which made Dietrich a star. Riefenstahl threw in her lot with the Nazis, Dietrich with the Allied forces.
The third player in this glittering triad is Wong, whose career as one of the first Asian-Americans to break into the film industry seems both miraculous and tragic. In 1932, she and Dietrich sizzle on-screen in Shanghai Express. But by 1937, she is "too Chinese to play a Chinese", according to an MGM screen test for The Good Earth. The role of the lead Chinese character goes to a white actress instead.
Lee Koe fleshes out the women behind the legends with remarkable complexity, hinging on the paradox at the heart of each one.
Riefenstahl, hugely talented and horrifyingly deluded, turns away as the Roma and Sinti extras hired for her 1954 movie Tiefland, filmed in the 1940s, are herded off to a concentration camp. Wong is forever curtailed by her race, yet despised in China for playing the Oriental siren to the hilt.
Dietrich, at 88, is an icon reduced to suffering the indignities of age, hiding in her Paris flat from the paparazzi. Lee Koe is unstinting on the details of human deterioration as bodies enshrined in glamour onscreen break down in reality.
Orbiting these stars are the stories of unknowns such as an Afrika Korps soldier hired to work on Tiefland and Dietrich's Chinese maid who wound up in Paris as a victim of trafficking. Surprisingly, it is the maid's story that most successfully achieves pathos as one becomes just as invested in her as the celebrity she serves, if not more.
Delayed Rays Of A Star is hard to pin down. Beneath its dazzling facade, it intimates that history is wider than labels would have you think, that stories are manifold. It seeks out strange serendipity and makes miracles of it.
If you like this, read: Ponti by Sharlene Teo (Picador, 2018, $27.95, Books Kinokuniya), about three women in Singapore: a 16-year-old outcast, her mother - once a cult actress - and her acerbic best friend.