Nghi Vo’s new novel Siren Queen is both a celebration of and warning about the golden years of Hollywood. Vo creates a mesmerising world with fantasy elements just below the surface in which people can literally sell their souls for a shot at stardom. She effortlessly combines these elements with a queer, Asian-American viewpoint to deliver a story that is full of both enticement and danger.
It is the 1930s and a young Asian girl working in her parents laundry in Los Angeles is entranced by the movies. She lucks her way onto a set and starts to get small roles, promoted by Jacko Dewalt, a young director. When she turns seventeen Jacko promises to make her a star but she does not want to be owned or controlled by anyone so she makes a deal with an old woman, giving up 20 years of her life to be free of Dewalt and have her shot. She gets a contract at Wolfe Studios, run by the rapacious Oberlin Wolfe and now under the name Luli Wei, she finds she has to navigate a world of stardom, magic and desire.
Vo builds a fascinating world, full of small and large acts of magic but also calling back to medieval fantasy concepts. But this aspect never dominates the narrative which centres squarely on Luli and her struggles to be recognised as an Asian actress in an industry with a particular concept of beauty and what sells. And with art imitating life, Luli achieves her breakthrough playing a monster, an outsider who is taking her revenge on the world. This is layered with Luli’s exploration of her own sexuality and the additional issues that part of her identity raises in a puritanical Hollywood that focussed on the surface.
There has always been a kind of magic associated with the movies and its larger than life stars. Vo brings that magic literally to life in Siren Queen in a way that makes sense in the world that she has created. And she uses it to reveal and explore the very real issues faced by those working in the industry at that time, many of which still persist.