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Book review: <i>Five Star Billionaire</i> by Tash Aw

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the cover of the book

Modern Shanghai is a city that chews you up and spits you out. A city where starry-eyed hopefuls gather to make it, where sad people run to escape for anonymity. But when you think you're getting somewhere, Shanghai will take everything from you. Five Star Billionaire is a story about the intersections of several lives in a city teeming with people, and their successes.

The story

Phoebe is an illegal immigrant with stars in her eyes and a false Chinese ID. With a collection of self help manuals and a lot of determination, she's pretty sure Shanghai can solve all her problems. Justin is in Shanghai with everything riding on a big real estate deal. He comes from old Kuala Lumpan money, and he's been raised as the family enforcer. But how can he survive Shanghai when he doesn't believe in what he's doing any more? Gary is from rural Malaysia, with the voice of an angel and a bone structure that has made him the latest pop sensation sweeping the nation. But Shanghai has other plans for him. Yinghui is a successful businesswoman who rarely sits still, always several projects on the go. Never talking about her past, where disgrace lies in her family, she is hard and cold and making it every step of the way. But she has no personal life and something is missing, something she'll have to delve into her past to find.

In one way or another, all these people encounter Walter Chao. He understands Shanghai.

The style

Five Star Billionaire is a bit of a slow burner. The first few chapters are long, introducing each of the characters one at a time, giving a little taste of their personalities. But definitely persevere through these, because once you become invested in the characters that's it you're hooked.

Each chapter cycles through the characters, third person limited, documenting their thoughts and behaviour and doing slow reveals about themselves and their relationships. The reveals blossom slowly and cleverly, so once the reader notices a fleeting connection between a couple of the five main characters, or a subtlety in one of their pasts that connects to their future, it turns into a real page turner. Each of the characters is a little flawed and utterly human, and terribly frustrating but sympathetic in their own way. It's very well connected and certainly not overdone, leaving many of the connections for the reader to make themselves. What I'm trying to say is, it's a fine, beautifully done story.

There's a fantastic sense of place as well. The story is flawlessly written in English, but the Chinese shines through as well, from the thoughtfully named chapter headings which tell a story themselves to the descriptions of tee-shirt slogans and advertisements, the ones that are so adorable in English because they don't quite work. Also, some of Phoebe's quirks in speech give her an innocence, she is after all picking up Shanghai-ese as a second language and some of the things she says aren't quite right but very telling. The dialogue is smooth where it should be, rough where it isn't. The way Asia is captured so beautifully for an English language readership is a glory to behold.

My previous reading of Chinese literature, even in a contemporary setting, has mainly been pastoral or set in factories in the country. In the last hundred years, China has it all. Farm land, some bloody revolutions, corrupt officials keeping the serfs down, and temples. And maybe that's what a lot of people think of when they think of China. The poverty, the one child policy, the oppression. The great wall. But China also has cities like Shanghai, that move and grow and are utterly contemporary and, let's be honest, pretty bloody developed. Five Star Billionaire is also an excellent read from that point of view, to me, it was a re-orientation of China in a literary perspective.

Who is this book for?

If you like clever character studies, a bit of suspense, and an Asian flavour full of insights into human nature, this is for you. And let's be honest, who WOULDN'T like those things?

If you like this book, you would also like...

Of other Chinese writers I have read, which are more pastoral but still very much Chinese in their writing (it's distinct. It really is.) I do adore Ha Jin.Jonathan Tel is pretty good too.

In short

Title: Five Star Billionaire
Author: Tash Aw
Publisher: Spiegel and Grau
ISBN: 978-0-8129-9434-6
Year published: 2013
Pages: 400
Genre(s): Contemporary literature
Review Type: