Tash Aw’s new book Five Star Billionaire is not unlike one of those Chinese puzzles that one sometimes gets in a luxury cracker. Lots of little pieces which seem not to fit together in any meaningful way until suddenly, by some sleight of hand that you cannot replicate, they slot together to make a perfect whole.
This is particularly true of Five Star Billionaire because so many of the characters are re-inventions of themselves. Country girls desperately trying to be city sophisticates; busted business men trying to hide from failures; busy executives trying to rise from the ashes of failed personal relationships. Walter, Phoebe, Yinghui, Justin, Gary and Yanyan – all of them are trying to move on from their past to the alluring future and by one thread or another, although they do not know this at the time, they are all linked.
As one of them manipulates the others, either through self-help books he has written, or through chat-rooms or through even more convoluted connections, their personal histories, even things that their parents did slowly reveal a mind-boggling pattern of cold hatred.
But each chapter opens like a slow motion video of a peony; a hard rounded ball gradually flowering into a floribunda of exquisite delicacy, centred with gold. As we read on, the petals take on more definition and the connections unwrap. This is a dazzling display of story-telling is set against a background of an emerging city, ruthless, modern and changing.
I really enjoyed this book, as I have all Tash Aw’s books. I very much hope to see it on the short list. This completes all the books that were already published when the long list came out. Two more have been hastily rushed out from the printers and are waiting for me at Primrose Hill Bookshop. One of them is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which I think is the one with 800 or so pages and the other is a first-time novel by Eve Harris. Meanwhile, before I get to those, I can read the new Samantha Harvey, All is Song (a writer I also discovered through the Man Booker Longlist. So read on…