Fourth Estate £18.99

Review: Five Star Billionaire, By Tash Aw

The loneliness of five long-distance foreigners

If the authorities in Shanghai ever want to ask a prize-winning writer to pen poetic phrases to attract visitors and investors to China's (and the world's) largest city, they would do best not to call Tash Aw. For this, his third novel, paints a dark picture of an endless metropolis to which many come to seek their fortunes but instead risk losing, or at the least deadening, their souls.

Like his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory (which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2005) and his second, Map of the Invisible World, Five Star Billionaire is connected to Malaysia, where Aw grew up. And he is unmatched at evoking the smells and sounds of the land and cityscapes, the figures of speech and shifting cultural mores of that finger-like peninsula that pokes into the South China Sea; a warm, wonderful land, but one where many fortunes were made too quickly and which discarded much of its history carelessly in the rush to develop.

Histories matter a great deal, however, to the novel's protagonists, who have come to China from Malaysia in pursuit of wealth, fame, or just to escape their humble roots. There is the mysterious Walter Chao, who keeps both his business success and his sideline writing best-selling self-help manuals (including the "Five Star Billionaire" of the title) in the deepest shadows. Gary, one of those identikit reality pop show winners who shoot to instant stardom across East Asia, suffers a spectacular fall from grace just as he is on the cusp of breaking into the Mainland market with a concert in Shanghai. Phoebe, an addict of the fatuous books Walter writes, absorbs such saccharine advice – as well as that of the more manipulative, how-to-get-a-man-and-keep-him type – and models her life according to it. Yinghui has adopted the carapace of the hard-edged businesswoman for so many years that she barely remembers her inner life. And Justin has a breakdown and a watery reinvention of sorts, after his family's investment property goes bust.

Their tales are told chapter by chapter, the characters slowly drawing closer together like flotsam in a vortex, before the stunning finale. Yet this is a novel about failing to connect, about people appearing to communicate, either face-to-face or on internet chat sites, but never showing their true selves; and it is about the profound loneliness these five foreigners – for although they are all Chinese Malaysians, they are most definitely outsiders in Shanghai – experience amid this crush of humanity. Surrounded by seas of others, not one could be said genuinely to know anyone at all.

There is wit here, and plenty of acute observation and characterisation. I particularly liked a young film starlet's ignorance of the European art house masters: "Wim Wenders – is he famous?" she asks. "I don't feel like working with him – he sounds boring." But there is also much heartbreak about what could so nearly have been. For none of Aw's characters is two-dimensionally bad; they are just flawed men and women whose ultimately fruitless pursuit of happiness is enthrallingly and sympathetically narrated. If there is a villain, it is the city itself and the inescapable cold avarice that is a part of its very atmosphere. I had little desire to visit Shanghai before reading Aw's powerful new novel. Now I have none.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks