Book review: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

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LIKE one of those “web-of-life” movies that arrived during the millennial period (think Magnolia, Amores Perros, Crash, Babel), Tash Aw’s gently compelling novel follows several narratives that overlap in unexpected ways.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

Fourth Estate £18.99

If that suggests this might be less a novel than a set of discrete short stories coaxed into loosely novel-esque form – well, that’s certainly arguable, and a not unheard-of trick in an age when publishers run scared of story collections. But if some half-hearted books have been formed that way, so have some great ones: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is just one famous example.

Aw – Malaysian-born, though he writes in English – has interestingly adopted the strategy not for a name- making first or second novel, but for his third. His first, The Harmony Silk Factory, won the Whitbread and Commonwealth First Book and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Its follow-up, Map Of The Invisible World, also met with acclaim. Yet Aw’s profile remains slight, interviews rare, his Twitter following tiny.

This coexistence of recognition and obscurity would seem to mirror certain of his thematic interests: his five protagonists here constantly negotiate between appearing and being successful; between finding profit or renown, and really being loved. A migrant worker sheds her innocence in pursuit of a gainful marriage; a pop star falls from dizzy stardom to the depths of public scorn; businesspeople and heirs gamble blindly with fortunes, feelings and familial legacies. And through it all, individuals get one another’s meanings and intentions terribly, tragically wrong.

But if the messages regarding the hollowness of material gain and the instability of personal connections are not new, Aw’s style – terse but tender, lightly ironic without being snide – is fresh, bracing and, above all, compassionate. His characters, though shy and private people, form profound impressions on the reader. One simply cares deeply what happens to them, and this skilled writer never makes that an easy matter to predict.