Our latest book club meeting discussed the book Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, a story about five people trying to stay afloat in Shanghai. The book got very mixed reactions from our readers, but for whoever liked it, or liked parts of it, we will give some further reading recommendations.
The first recommendation is always more work by the author himself. Tash Aw has written two other novels of which The Harmony Silk Factory is the most praised. It won several awards and turned Aw into a household name for Malaysian English literature. The Harmony Silk Factory is about a textile merchant called Johnny Lim. He’s a Chinese peasant that moved to British Malaya and the story is set in the first half of the 20th century. The book delves into the history of China and Malaya and tries to discover the identity of Johnny. Is he the hero that fought the Japanese when they invaded or is he a crook and collaborator that betrayed the people he should have served? Just like Five Star Billionaire, Aw experiments here with multiple point of views and unreliable narrators to showcase how subjective life can be.
If you liked the self-help aspect of the book and want to learn more about becoming rich, try Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The book is also written like a self-help book pretending to teach you how to become rich. It suggests get rich quick schemes and ways to stay alive in the cut-throat large cities of Asia. Just like Five Star Billionaire this book has multiple narrators and an emotional story that is hiding out as a tacky self-help novel.
Phoebe, one of the main characters from the novel is a factory girl, a typical kind of migrant working in large factories all around China. Tash Aw used the book Factory Girl: From Village to City in a Changing China written by Leslie T. Chang as research for his own novel. Factory Girl traces the lives of two real life girls who are trying to escape the assembly lines to rise to the top. Chang researched one specific sneaker factory in Dongguan which is large enough to house its own hospital, movie theater and of course karaoke bars.
An often remarked point about Five Star Billionaire was that all the descriptions of Shanghai as a city were beautiful and very life-like. The city itself became a character in the book and was almost equally important to the plot. If you like rosy prose and pretty descriptions of Asia, you might want to give The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng a try. Also a Malaysian author, he writes with the same calm and slow rhythm that you can enjoy from Tash Aw.
If it was the narrative structure of the book that got you going, you should take a look at Communion Town by Sam Thompson. It’s a story told from 10 different voices, all talking about the same city. The stories interject and connect with each other, the characters meeting without them knowing it. The book reads as ten short stories all about the same setting that can be read separately, but ultimately form a whole. And it’s even recommended by Tash Aw himself!
Although many of us didn’t enjoy the revenge plot of the novel that much, there is nothing wrong with a good avenging story! So give True Grit by Charles Portis a shot! You might have seen the movie, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book (we should make this our catchphrase or at least a new category of blog posts). In True Grit the 14-year old Mattie Ross is out to avenge her father’s death and to do this she enlists the meanest Marshall in town. Very different in tone from Five Star Billionaire with much more humor as a dead-pan western.