Sunday March 3, 2013
Five Star read
Review by NASA MARIA ENTABAN
Tash Aw’s latest novel is a must-read, for many different reasons.
Five Star Billionaire
Author: Tash Aw
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 431 pages
AS readers, we often have some idea about where we want the characters in our books to end up. Whether it’s the evil villain we want behind bars or the hopeful protagonist we want to achieve happiness, we follow their stories and hope that by the last page they’ll be where we want them to be. However, novels can sometimes be like real life in that you don’t always get what you wish for in them either – and maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Exciting plot twists and page-turning drama are aplenty in Tash Aw’s third novel, Five Star Billionaire. You can be sure of one thing: predictable this book is not.
This is a must-read for several reasons, and one is the in-depth plunge into the metropolis that is Shanghai; the writer weaves five compelling characters into the backdrop of this sprawling financial centre and world’s busiest container port.
Take in the vivid descriptions of its busy streets, its skyscrapers, and its people: young and old, rich and poor, all heading somewhere, all struggling, few hopeful.
Aw revisits his Malaysian roots too: through the characters’ flashbacks he describes rural Malaysia as well as well-known areas in Kuala Lumpur, and briefly examines politics as well as the indulgent youth culture born of affluent families. (Aw, mischievously, sounds like he is almost poking fun at these bourgeois folk!)
We have five complex characters to root for. There’s Phoebe, a naive immigrant worker who learns that trust is dangerous in a place like Shanghai. The young girl’s story paints an almost hopeless picture: she is one among millions of young women trying to make a place for themselves in the metropolis, knowing that with their limited education, skills and language abilities, they are unremarkable and all too easily replaceable.
Then there’s Justin Lim, millionaire property magnate whose family business collapses and sends him into reclusion, away from his family, away from responsibility. Knowing he has lost his way, will he snap out of it and save the business or continue to hide out from the world?
And we have Yinghui, a savvy small-business entrepreneur who plays it safe since tragedy marked her past but who has come so far, burying haunting memories under piles of work and social engagements. In her late 30s, unmarried and threateningly independent, she refuses to settle until an impressive entrepreneur approaches her for business (or pleasure – she isn’t sure).
Next up is Gary the teen popstar, whose story we are all too familiar with: boy wins reality talent show, boy rises to superstardom, boy makes a mistake and falls from grace. Aw delves deep into this character’s psyche, unveiling an immensely talented youth who is really quite vulnerable, with a sad past behind him.
Finally, a business guru – and you’ll have to read the book to find out what this character is all about as saying anything else would be a spoiler.
Much like his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, and (many fans will agree with me on this one) the first three quarters of his second, Map Of The Invisible World, Five Star Billionaire is a great read.
Keep an open mind and fall in love with the story for what it is: a very realistic account of what many people’s lives must be like in the New China, where harsh realities consume you and dreams can easily go up in smoke, and at the end of the day you’re left wondering what remains of the person you used to be, who you can trust, and where to go from here.
In the end, the novel has a hopeful tone – when everything appears bleak there’s always a silver lining, and you are the only one who can take charge of your own fate.
A third from Tash