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The weakest of Tash's three novels
on 2 September 2013
Tash Aw's novels should be so good; he has a great ear for a title; his locations are to die for and his stories are brimming with ideas. But his previous two novels, although entertaining enough at the time, have left not the slightest trace of a memory on this reader's mind. Five Star Billionaire seems to be more of the same.
The novel stars five people (do you see what Tash did there?) who all hope of becoming billionaires. They are all outsiders from Malaysia (though Gary the disenchanted rock star might also have connections with Taiwan) and have all pitched up in Shangai. Their pasts, presents and futures all seem intertwined in degrees of coincidence that would make Dickens blush.
The characters, and there are actually more than five of them, fall into three groups: the men, the women, and Gary. The men: Walter Chau, Justin, the Lims and others all seem much of a muchness. They want to get rich through property deals but have a sensitive side if you look. The women, too, are interchangeable with Phoebe, Yinghui and Yanyan seem to want to make money in the field of make-up, massage, lingerie and dating. You have to keep wide awake to remember which one is which because they sound the same, behave the same and think the same. Only Gary, the rock star who has run away from his management company and is holed up in a darkened flat looking at intimate internet sites offers any relief from the monotony.
As for the settings - the novel bounces from Shanghai to Kota Bharu to Kuala Lumpur. Yet these wonderful cities with their mix of sounds and smells could be anywhere. Where are the images of eaves full of chirping birds and loudspeakers broadcasting the call to prayer in the deeply Islamic city of Kota Bharu? Where are the hoons driving around the town all night hooting their horns, perfectly sober in this dry city? And in Shanghai, where are the bicycle bells, the rows of ancient shops and cottages dwarfed by new developments, the fake pavilions outside the walls of the Yuyuan gardens? It is a criminal waste of locations to let them slip through unnoticed. Were this a first novel, you might say that the creation of a place is a skill still to be learned, but in a third consecutive novel it looks like a real weakness.
So, if the characters are a bit samey and the setting seems a bit bland, what of the story? Sadly, that too is a bit of a fizzler. The various story lines sort of come together at the end and there is supposed to be a bit of an explanation, a bit of a backstory that explains it all. The trouble is, it doesn't. The way the five stars behave towards one another makes no sense. There is no consistency over time and the backstory, when you analyse it, makes no sense.
Five Star Billionaire had its moments; it did create the occasional moment of suspense (invariably left hanging for too long), it did have some witty turns of phrase. For the most part, the novel was not actually boring and sometimes was quite entertaining. But overall, it was not enough. This is the weakest of Tash's three novels, and he seems to be in a bit of a downward spiral.