Thursday, October 3, 2013

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

The booming Chinese economy draws hopefuls from all over southeast Asia. In Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw interlaces the stories of four Malaysians with big dreams who are working in Shanghai. The connections between them are slowly and masterfully revealed.

As at the end of Aw's earlier novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, the finished puzzle seen by readers remains invisible to his characters. Yet Phoebe, Jason, Gary and Yinghui are real and sympathetic characters. Aw treats each one with loving warmth, making it a joy to get to know them.

Phoebe arrived in Shanghai to find that the job she had been promised wasn't there. She is diligent in her efforts to improve herself, to rise above her impoverished childhood and lack of education.

"She bought a few self-help books, cheap counterfeit copies being sold on the pavement near the subway station in Tiantong Lu, such as Sophistify Yourself."

"Sure, the handbag was a fake, but it was a very high-quality copy, which had cost her a lot of money -- chao-A counterfeit goods were expensive and difficult to obtain these days, what with the Europeans putting pressure on the Chinese government to ban such items. This was what the shopkeeper had explained to her in order to justify the cost of more than 1,000 kuai. She remembered being astonished at the time by the price, nearly five times what she had paid for her existing bag, which she had purchased in a market in Guangzhou and was exactly the same brand. But she was in Shanghai now, and everything was more luxurious and more expensive."

Jason works for his family's international business and struggles with the expectations that have been forced upon him. When the company's fortunes take a nosedive, Jason also crashes.

"He clicked on his in-box to look at his emails -- the first time in weeks that he had done so. He calmly waited while the emails loaded, not panicking as he had done before, feeling strong enough to deal with whatever appeared. Even when he saw the number of unread emails -- 3,281 -- highlighted in bold font, as if to emphasize his negligence, he felt unruffled. He scanned the pages swiftly; he could sense three or four calling out to him, like ailing antelope in a herd of thousands whose weak bleating drew the attention of the predators. They were from his brother, imploring him to come home."

Gary is a pop star sensation who derives no satisfaction from his concerts or his fans. He connects to the world only anonymously, online.

"In front of him, little windows announce themselves on the screen of his laptop, popping into existence like beautiful, short-lived nighttime flowers."

Yinghui has worked hard to establish herself as a successful business women, but she is haunted by her past.

"Sooner or later the frantic somersaults of fortune have to end and the restlessness of desire fades. It was time -- so all her friends said -- that she started settling down. Such a strange expression, she thought: settling down, as if she were silt in a warm river, sinking slowly to the muddy bed."

As Phoebe, Jason, Gary and Yinghui struggle to reinvent themselves, they are manipulated by outside forces. Five Star Billionaire, longlisted for the Booker this year, is a novel as vibrant and confounding as life in a mega-metropolis can be.

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