Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw, Spiegal & Grau, 2013, 379 pp
The best part of Five Star Billionaire is the end because of a surprise plot twist I did not see coming at all. Getting to the end took a while but the slow build involved five complete life stories and skillful character development.
Most other reviews I have read are heavy on the five main characters as is the front cover blurb, so I won't spend my time retelling what you can find anywhere. The most brilliant character is a city: modern Shanghai with its frenetic rate of change and its contrasts between old and new. A city like New York or Paris or London where people come to make dreams happen.
Whether his story is set in Malaysia (The Harmony Silk Factory) or Indonesia (Map of the Invisible World) or Shanghai, Tash Aw always addresses the effects of politics, Western influence, and uprootedness on the individuals in his books. His mastery of these themes grows more sure-handed each time and Five Star Billionaire is as big and ambitious as Shanghai, taking the reader relentlessly and progressively deeper into the lives of those five characters. Instead of one protagonist, he gives us five of equal strength.
As they circle around one another it becomes clear that Walter Chao is the kingpin. He is wealthy and we learn from his own voice how he got there. His bestselling self-help book, written under a pseudonym and entitled "Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire," was intended to help others achieve success. Like many supremely successful businessmen, he has secrets though they aren't the ones he gives away in his book. The true motivations of Walter Chao, the reasons for the moves he makes, and what he wants from the other four, make up the mysterious flavor coursing through the novel.
Rereading the first few pages, I discovered the clue to that twist at the end. So brilliant is the storytelling, I was mesmerized, misled and unsuspecting. Once again an author has had his way with me. I love that! Five Star Billionaire has been long-listed for this year's Booker Prize. I hope Tash Aw wins.
(Five Star Billionaire is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)