Five Star Billionaire is a novel rich in vivid characters, with a setting unfamiliar enough to be interesting, described in just enough detail to be familiar. Not everyone has a happy ending; not everyone gets what they deserve, but this is Shanghai, China, and everyone is grasping for what they think they want. Except they’re usually wrong.
The old jostles with the new and the new’s not always sure where it’s going or what it wants to achieve. In this directionless society, money seems to be the only measure of success. The more artificial, the more brittle, the more expensive, the better. Phoebe has come to Shanghai from her Malaysian village, determined to work her way into riches, but her brief stint as a successful employee is doomed by her illegal status. Justin enjoys riches, working as he does for his incredibly wealthy and powerful family, but he has questions too. In a romantic novel, Phoebe and Justin would get together through pure self-interest, then discover something deeper through the delightful alchemical processes of true love. But Five Star Billionaire is not a romance. The characters are always so conscious of a highly desirable life just out of reach that they never see what’s before them. For the already wealthy (Phoebe’s employer Yinghui, Walter, the titular billionaire) that means genuine human relationships. For the poor, that means wealth. Between these two extremes, the reader is treated to a varied cross section of characters, allowing Aw to show his Shanghai in all its kaleidoscopic fascination. Just occasionally, it feels as though the characters have been created to make a point. For example, Gary, the manufactured pop singer, loses his grip on reality as he becomes more and more famous, feels a little clichéd. However, this is more than compensated for by original, surprising ideas, such as the old man intent on harvesting birds’ nests from his derelict hotel, clinging to his futile dream of leaving a legacy to his child.
For me, one or two characters fewer would have made for a tighter reading experience; alternatively, a longer novel would have allowed the various themes to be explored in greater depth. However, Five Star Billionaire is is a colourful and energetic read. Tash Aw has been longlisted for the Man Booker before, for The Harmony Silk Factory, which is now on my reading list. If he’s not shortlisted this time, I hope the fact that he’s garnered new readers will be some consolation.