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A fascinating portrait of Shanghai from the inside
on 13 July 2014
Tash Aw’s previous book ‘Map of the Invisible World’, published in 2009, was set in a Japanese garden designed to maximise peace and tranquility. The setting for this one could hardly be more different.
The novel tells the stories of four Malaysians who have come to Shanghai: Phoebe, an ambitious village girl who pretends to be Chinese and is determined to start a new life; Gary, a "Taiwanese" pop star who has lost his young audience and is trying desperately to regain his popularity; Yinghui, a successful businesswoman who is told by her friends that her life is incomplete without a man and Justin, adopted into a formerly wealthy family who have now lost everything. There is also Walter Chao, author of a self-help manual ‘Five Star Billionaire’, who periodically addresses the reader. However, it is really the dynamic and pulsating city of Shanghai that stands at the centre of Aw’s book.
Initially, the links between the main characters are oblique: Phoebe having a poster of Gary on her wall, Walter discussing a business opportunity with Yinghui but, as the book proceeds, the reader feels that they are connected by greater bonds. Interspersed with the stories of the four characters, we find sections from Walter’s self-help book, such as ‘How To Achieve Greatness’, ‘How To Invest Wisely - A Case Study In Property Management’ and ‘How To Hang On To Your Dreams – Property Management Case Study, Continued’. One of Walter’s thoughts is ‘In the business of life, every tiny episode is a test, every human encounter a lesson’. For some readers, these might help stitch the personal narratives together and, with luck, might set the reader on the road to the first billion. However, eventually these asides can be seen to have a much greater significance.
Aw is a very good writer but this is a long book and, perhaps because of the topic, I found it very difficult to empathise with any of the characters who each seem to be sleepwalking through the novel – perhaps this is the Eastern lack of free will? Each character pursues an individual path in establishing his/her relationship with the metropolis.
The story does, eventually, speed up but, for me, the main interest in this book was its setting in Shanghai. Aw offers a compelling impression from the inside, well away from well-beaten tourist sites, rather than the external perspective of a foreign traveller. The book is very topical, of course, but I really want more from a novel. It is also very bitty which, alongside my difficulty with the characters, introduced a barrier between me and the narrative. A final difficulty was the rather confusing shifts in time, which ultimately led to my having a greater interest in what had happened in the past rather than in the present.
Something of a disappointment then. However, Aw's previous books were sufficiently interesting to make me want to read his next one.