07 Sep / Siren Queen by Nghi Vo [in Booklist]
Nghi Vo’s stupendous debut, The Chosen and the Beautiful, alchemized (and improved) The Great Gatsby by shifting narrative control to supporting character Jordan Baker. Vo dramatically gifts similarly transformative autonomy to her latest protagonist, Luli Wei, who is clearly a revisionist stand-in for legendary Asian American film pioneer Anna May Wong, who was unable to break free of the industry’s racist traps.
In Vo’s magical, albeit often deadly, version of Hollywood, the monsters and their demonic deals are literal, the onerous studios commanded by omnipotent heads like Oberlin Wolfe. Despite the repressive oversight, Luli manages to maneuver with audacity from extra to starlet to the titular siren queen, even as she insists, “No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” Her demands require predatory payments – her very blood, 20 years of her life – but her stardom is her triumph.
Natalie Naudus ciphers a vast cast with unflagging energy, although not quite effectively distinguishing among characters, especially the few men whom she seems to imbue with a too-similar lower-register growl. Where Naudus is just good enough, Vo’s writing shines brilliantly.