Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

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Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A fictionalised taste of the fight for success in a modern, vibrant China. Different people, different methods but one well-woven story with messages that are universal.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 500 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Fourth Estate
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0007494156

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China is a booming economy for people in a position to take advantage; people like Gary the pop star who once won a talent show, Yinghui the lingerie magnate or her childhood friend and property developer Justin who feels the weight of his family's expectations. Then there's Phoebe, moving to Shanghai from the country on a promise and a belief that to attract success one must act as if one already has it. Life will bring them into each other's orbit but it won't leave any of them the same as when they started.

Born in China of Malaysian parents, Tash Aw touched the heady heights of the Man Booker long-list in 2005 with his first novel The Harmony Silk Factory which he set in 1940s Malaya. Eight years later he's not only nominated again but also one of the top three favourites to win with Five Star Billionaire. In this novel he moves us to China, peeling back the bamboo curtain to show us the struggle for success through his cast's intricately plaited lives.

Tash gently criss-crosses the story and threads with great skill, pulling our interest in and then hitting us with a clever climax. I daren't mention any more than that in case I accidentally spoil but sticking with this long story through to the end pays vast rewards.

The protagonists are mostly recognisable from our own culture - the ageing child pop star hanging on to ebbing success or the property developer desperate to fly solo, away from the family firm that expects more than he feels he has. However their background and influences can't all be replicated here in the West. For instance, disappointing one's parents has different connotations in a country based on respect for one's parents.

Meanwhile Phoebe is a fusion of old and new China. She aims to be successful but feels the only way she can do this is through marriage to the right successful man, a hunt that leads to some entertaining encounters (for us if not for her). There's also Walter, the billionaire of the title, who has the distinction of telling us his own story in teaser-like instalments, popping up between the third person narrative; not only clever but highly effective.

Apart from warming to Walter over time, I must admit to not liking any of the characters. (I mention this in a wouldn't-like-to-meet-them kind of way rather than as literary criticism as they feel both authentic and well-drawn.) It's as if their struggle for success has replaced much of their humanity. Indeed, this is a fable; as much a study of mammon destroying the soul as it is a demonstration of individuals struggling to obtain a slice of the world's affluence and a view of the Tiger economy. There's also that moral (and very satisfying) ending.

So what will you expect to get out of Five Star Billionaire? If you're happy with what you have this novel will give you good reason to feel smug. If you're not content and want more than you've attained, Tash may have hit upon a way of making you think again.

If you enjoyed this and would like to stay with the theme of struggling for financial independence, we most definitely recommend The Trader of Saigon by Lucy Cruickshanks. If you'd prefer to stick with this year's Man Booker nominees, take your pick. There's definitely a rich divergance available.

Booklists.jpg Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw is in the Man Booker Prize 2013.

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Buy Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw at

If you'd like an ebook but don't read on Kindle then the book is available from Sainsburys.


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