Year of a Hundred books – #96 Five Star Billionaire

Five Star BillionaireFive Star BillionaireTash Aw

2/5

The last of the Booker long-listed novels I finished before the short-list was announced, I think Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire is definitely the weakest of the nominated books I’ve read. In contrast to We Need New Names, which was hard to read because of the content, this was hard to read because it was just so uninspiring.

I think the best way to sum up the novel is to say that it’s partly about the social changes in China and Malaysia, and partly about property markets in the same place. This was interesting, sort of. For instance, the passages about cultivation of birds nests to sell on as delicacies was pretty fascinating, but in general it wasn’t enough to keep me engaged with actually reading the book. In fact, I found that it was really hard to keep reading at times, but I don’t think this was entirely a result of the subject matter: the characters were all incredibly dull.

There are five main characters that start off separate and distinct, but over time their paths begin to cross. Like Aw, they’re all Malaysians who have emigrated to China to either make a new start in life or rebuild on their old ones. We have Gary, a pop sensation fallen from grace (who was actually the most interesting of all the characters, and the only to actually evoke anything close to sympathy). Then there’s Phoebe, an illegal immigrant in Shanghai who’s sole character point is that she wants to be rich, either by merit or by marriage. Justin, the fallen son of one of East Asia’s most powerful business families, has had a bit of a breakdown following the financial crash and has holed himself up, away from the outside world. Yinghui who has finally made her money by selling expensive underwear and is now approached to take part in a life-changing business opportunity. Alongside all of these there’s the elusive (and titular) Five Star Billionaire, whom we only come to know through his auto-biographical life story. All of them had the potential to be interesting, but to be honest, Aw didn’t manage to deliver on that promise. As I said, Gary was the only character I could get engaged with, and even he was pretty unappealing at times.

In terms of writing, well, the prose wasn’t particularly engaging, but I think that there was a fairly major stylistic problem that had a knock-on effect on my enjoyment. I’d say a good three-quarters of the book happens retro-actively. There is a lot of context provided through flashbacks, which would ordinarily be fine. However, practically the first half of every chapter consists of filling in the gaps of what happened sicne the end of the previous chapter. It meant that there was never any urgency to the book, which can only have been detrimental to my enjoyment of the novel.

What really made Five Star Billionaire irredeemable was the fact that the ending was just so unsatisfying. The novel felt as though it had been building up to a grand revelation, but I’d basically managed to figure it out by about two-thirds of the way through, and even when it was announced, it happened very quickly, almost as though Aw had got bored and wanted to wrap things up as quickly as he could. There was nothing satisfying about it, for either the characters or the reader. On top of that, while I don’t think that books necessarily need to have a message to be good, I think that the rather tenuous justification for the whole affair was fairly shaky at best.  The result was that after finishing the book, I couldn’t think of anything that I’d actually got out of reading it, and was left wondering almost why I’d bothered.

Finally, my thoughts on its inclusion in the longlist. I’ve read a handful of newly published books this year that fit the criteria, and I definitely don’t think that the story or the writing were up to the same standards as, for example, Americanah or Ghana Must Go. I don’t know enough about the nomination criteria to know complain that they weren’t nominated (although it’s worth noting that each publisher may submit two novels, and both Five Star Billionaire and Americanah are published by 4th Estate), only to make the point that if the two books I’ve read this year outside of the context of the Booker Prize happen to be better than Five Star Billionaire, I think it’s unlikely that this ever had a chance of winning.

The last of the Booker long-listed novels I finished before the short-list was announced, I think Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire is definitely the weakest of the nominated books I’ve read. In contrast to We Need New Names, which was hard to read because of the content, this was hard to read because it was just so uninspiring.

I think the best way to sum up the novel is to say that it’s partly about the social changes in China and Malaysia, and partly about property markets in the same place. This was interesting, sort of. For instance, the passages about cultivation of birds nests to sell on as delicacies was pretty fascinating, but in general it wasn’t enough to keep me engaged with actually reading the book. In fact, I found that it was really hard to keep reading at times, but I don’t think this was entirely a result of the subject matter: the charcters were all incredibly dull.

There are five main characters that start off separate and distinct, but over time their paths begin to cross. Like Aw, they’re all Malaysians who have emigrated to China to either make a new start in life or rebuild on their old ones. We have Gary, a pop sensation fallen from grace (who was actually the most interesting of all the chracters, and the only to actually evoke anything close to sympathy). Then there’s Phoebe, an illegal immigrant in Shanghai who’s sole character point is that she wants to be rich, either by merit or by marriage. Justin, the fallen son of one of East Asia’s most powerful business families, has had a bit of a breakdown following the financial crash and has holed himself up, away from the outside world. Yinghui who has finally made her money by selling expensive underwear and is now approached to take part in a life-changing business oppurtunity. Alongside all of these there’s the elusive (and titular) Five Star Billionaire, whom we only come to know through his auto-biographical life story. All of them had the potential to be interesting, but to be honest, Aw didn’t manage to deliver on that promise. As I said, Gary was the only character I could get engaged with, and even he was pretty unappealing at times.

In terms of writing, well, the prose wasn’t particularly engaging, but I think that there was a fairly major stylistic problem that had a knock-on effect on my enjoyment. I’d say a good three-quarters of the book happens retro-actively. There is a lot of context provided through flashbacks, which would ordinarily be fine. However, practically the first half of every chapter consists of filling in the gaps of what happened sicne the end of the previous chapter. It meant that there was never any urgency to the book, which can only have been detrimental to my enjoyment of the novel.

What really made Five Star Billionaire irredeemable was the fact that the ending was just so unsatisfying. The novel felt as though it had been building up to a grand revelation, but I’d basically managed to figure it out by about two-thirds of the way through, and even when it was announced, it happened very quickly, almost as though Aw had got bored and wanted to wrap things up as quickly as he could. There was nothing satisfying about it, for either the characters or the reader. On top of that, while I don’t think that books necessarily need to have a message to be good, I think that the rather tenuous justification for the whole affair was fairly shaky at best.  The result was that after finishing the book, I couldn’t think of anything that I’d actually got out of reading it, and was left wondering almost why I’d bothered.

Finally, my thoughts on its inclusion in the longlist. I’ve read a handful of newly published books this year that fit the criteria, and I definitely don’t think that the story or the writing were up to the same standards as, for example, Americanah or Ghana Must Go. I don’t know enough about the nomination criteria to know complain that they weren’t nominated (although it’s worth noting that each publisher may submit two novels, and both Five Star Billionaire and Americanah are published by 4th Estate), only to make the point that if the two books I’ve read this year outside of the context of the Booker Prize happen to be better than Five Star Billionaire, I think it’s unlikely that this ever had a chance of winning.

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5 thoughts on “Year of a Hundred books – #96 Five Star Billionaire

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