This is the year the Booker Prize longlist went truly international of the 13 novels nominated, there are writers from Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and Canada, alongside the smattering of British writers.
Four are resident in the US, despite American writers’ theoretical exclusion. They take on everything from global inequality and post-reconstruction Iraq to the streets of Calcutta and a Japanese schoolgirl’s diary. But when the judges come up with their shortlist on September 10, not many of the books will match the epic sweep of Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire – a tale of five newcomers finding their way in present-day Shanghai.
It’s quite a departure from Aw’s previous books. His award--winning (and similarly Booker longlisted) 2005 debut The Harmony Silk Factory was set in British Malaya in the 1940s, while the follow-up, Map of the Invisible World, partly took place in Indonesia in the 1960s. Epic novels tend to be historical, but Five Star Billionaire feels pleasingly current.
“You have to be prepared for criticism because people read contemporary fiction with more of a realistic mindset,” says Aw, 41. “They want it to be faithful to their version of the world. But we are living in epic times. It’s a story about migration, loneliness and chance in a rapidly changing world. To me, migration is surely the major story of the past 10 years.”
And although that might sound hard-going, the joy of Aw’s book is that it is compulsively readable. From Phoebe, who arrives in Shanghai to find her dreams immediately dashed, to the fallen pop star Gary, the lonely businessman Justin and the successful but tormented Yinghui, these are all characters to care about, people who are looking for self-respect and intimacy and who want to succeed.
In fact, though it’s very much a Shanghai book, its themes transcend China’s largest city.
“Absolutely,” Aw says. “There are so many people moving around from city to city these days that this rootlessness – which carries with it a certain sense of excitement and possibility, too – is really common.
“I just felt, having experienced these things myself – I was born in Taipei, grew up in Kuala Lumpur, worked in London and so on – that I had to write a novel about it.
“Lots of people in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will know what I’m talking about. Like Shanghai, these are incredibly aspirational cities, constantly reinventing and modernising themselves and impossibly exciting to live in. But they can also be tough emotionally, particularly if you scratch below the surface.”
Five Star Billionaire, like Mohsin Hamed’s excellent How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – a notable omission from this year’s longlist – takes inspiration from the self-help books that Aw says have proliferated all over the -continent.
Chapter headings offer advice, such as “How to rebound after each failure” and “Beware of storms arising from clear skies”. But if there is any real advice, it’s to try to find some sort of accommodation with your lot, which most of Aw’s characters eventually manage.
And in doing so, they cross each other in subtle, coincidental ways in the streets of Shanghai. Some critics have found this a stretch too far in a city of 23 million people but there is a point to these interlocking stories beyond mere plot -contrivance. “I know some people don’t buy it but this was my experience in Shanghai. It happened all the time in a way that I couldn’t ignore anymore, which is why the novel is written as it is.
“And that is what migration is all about – when a small group of people move from one place to another, they will instinctively yet unknowingly be seeking each other out because they want to find familiar people. And I do think that those coincidences are magnified in a big city – they’re greater to the person experiencing them. Also, this sort of thing always happens in 19th-century novels.”
And this is the joy of Tash Aw – he takes on some big issues but Five Star Billionaire is as big-hearted, compelling and entertaining as a Charles Dickens novel. The Booker longlisting is well deserved.
“It’s a real honour to be nominated, particularly as I’ve really enjoyed reading the other books on the list,” he says. “I’m just happy it has struck a chord somewhere.”