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“Every other part of you is soft, the blonde said, but your hands are rough. Why is that? Laundry hands, Anna May said, as she ran her chapped palm up and down the blonde’s bare leg. Keep going, the blonde said with a shiver, I like your laundry hands.”—Amanda Lee Koe, Delayed Rays of a Star
There are the big beautiful and bountiful novels that come along and buoy us through the ages; if we’re lucky, the novels ramble on, cross generations and perspectives, invoke the fantastic, and still, despite hundreds of pages, leave us wanting. I’m thinking here of anything by Donna Tartt, and, of course, the classic that is 100 Years of Solitude. These rich, decadent narratives are classics because they dare to reach as wide as they can possibly reach, all within the bounds of a book and its physical limitations. It’s as though they see the horizon and they shrug, so what?
Some queer art is not able to access this expansiveness—not because lack of talent, but because marginalized communities have lived their whole lives being told abundance isn’t for them. So imagine my delight when I encountered Amanda Lee Koe’s thick and lush book, Delayed Rays of a Star, full of perspective-shifting, sensually visceral, crossing decades of time and borders of countries and imaginary barriers of languages and customs. The plot of this novel is simple: an intersecting, chance encounter at a Berlin soirée in 1928 is captured on film by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt between three women. These women include beloved German actress Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, the world’s first Chinese American movie star, and Leni Riefenstahl, whose work as a director of early Nazi propaganda films would first make her celebrated—and later, notorious. The novel continues the braiding of the lives of these three woman and their meetings (in person, over letters, or in the same era).
One of the great beauties of this novel is that hardship is the boat on which the women in this story sail. They fashion for themselves a way to get through, glittering with a kind of measured hardness and esteem all the while.
It’s odd to describe the way the book left me feeling—which was proud. That’s an uncommon description in a book review, but then again, this is an uncommon book. The intimacy is presented as multifaceted and diamond-like: resilient, defiant, ample, deeply-flawed, many-layered, survivalist—I closed the book feeling as though I belonged to a lineage of people whose complex, troubled humanity was both a joy and a burden. And that is rare for a queer novel that also seeks to be as expansive as a classic. This is a triumph, and I imagine we can continue to expect great things from this author for years to come.
Delayed Rays of a Star
By Amanda Lee Koe
Nan A. Talese
Hardcover, 9780385544344, 400 pp.