I wish I could be the kind of person who can give up on a book they’re not enjoying. This article by author Lionel Shriver was doing the rounds early in the year in which she claims “reading time is precious. Don't waste it on bad books, or books that are wrong for a certain time in your life”. But I can never bring myself to do it - I feel a real sense of duty to finish any book that I start. Sometimes the ending doesn’t reward me and I am left feeling slightly resentful to myself that I spent that time reading something I wasn’t enjoying when there are so many amazing books out there, and frankly, a steadily increasing, potentially crushing, pile of new books to read next to my bed. But then there’s the pay off: I took a break during Barracuda and it ended up being one of my absolute favourite books of last year (read my post about it here). The first 200 pages of Five Star Billionaire were a real struggle: the chapters are broken up by character and the splitting of the story this way failed to engage me at the start. The writing style was static and failed to grip me. But, once I took a break and persevered, the story developed, the characters began to interact, their lives began to weave together, and it got me.
Five Star Billionaire is the story of five newcomers to a big city. It’s about finding yourself in new places, being chewed up and spat out, taking risks in business, family and love, and it’s about the transience that big metropolis’ bring. It’s similar in a lot of ways to John Lancaster’s Capital or Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia (which I wrote about here) but rather than being set in London it takes place in Shanghai. The ever-growing Asian economic giant takes the role of London in an economic recession, but similarly the central characters are all travellers, seeking new starts, love, money and, as cheesy as it sounds, a chance to follow their dreams. Each character is flawed: a combination of their own personal failings and the stresses of the big city and it’s destruction of their personal lives in order to gain career growth and to satisfy a never-ending financial greed.
At first I found Tash Aw’s style difficult to wade through. He uses the early pages of the novel to set up his characters, but with little emotional connection, such as in this paragraph where he’s describing pop star Gary’s struggle with fame:
“Yes, there is something comic about this young life, even though we know it is sad. Gary himself feels like laughing. Surrounded by the newspapers strewn across the floor … he sees just how ridiculous this situation is. If he were not the subject of these stories he would be eager to read all of them, because there is a sense of unreality about this whole affair - no one could possibly be so idiotic. Every day he would want to get the cheap newspapers and the magazines with their colourful covers and ask himself, chuckling, How can someone so famous be so goddamn stupid?”
But slowly, as the character soften and reveal more of themselves, Aw’s writing softens too. Their lives begin to intersect and things start to get more interesting. There are insights into how the characters came to find themselves in Shanghai, such as this great piece about dysfunctional family life:
“Their dinners were set pieces specifically designed to avoid uncomfortable exchanges… She could so easily have ruptured the falseness of their happy-family image with a direct question; even if it upset the dinner, it would at least make them talk. But no; every time she felt the urge to blurt out her question - Is it true? - an equally strong sensation arose in her, a feeling of guilt and responsibility which negated the impulse to seek the truth.”
And we learn about the characters’ early days in Shanghai: dirtier, dire days of poverty and indecision, before they reach where we find them today:
“She left Malaysia two months after his funeral, heading for Singapore, but it was too familiar, too much like home. … It was not until she reached Shanghai that she felt she was sufficiently far away from all she had lost.”
I’ve read a lot of stories about migration, travels and identity and talked about them a lot on this blog, but this was my first exploration into modern Asia. I think like a lot of Australians I have the rather colonial flaw of still looking to Europe for this idea of the ‘grand adventure’. In comparing Capital and The Embassy of Cambodia to Five Star Billionaire it makes me see that these same issues of migration, poverty, displacement and identity are all taking place in a country so many of us fly over on the way to seeking these things ourselves. I know that increasingly this is happening less and less - I’m probably the only one of my friends, or at least one of very few, who hasn’t travelled in Asia - but it’s certainly a trait amongst older generations of Australians, which makes Five Star Billionaire an interesting story to read from an Australian perspective. It goes back to the idea that I talked about after reading Barracuda that sometimes you can find out more about a country by reading fiction than what you see in the news or history books. Fiction gives context to a place and a human connection that makes it more difficult to ignore than stories buried in the world pages of a newspaper. Tash Aw failed to grip me from the beginning, but after two days curled up diving into the second half of the novel, he left me with a new perspective on his writing, but also of modern China:
“This is the way things work in China, he knows that now: if you stop for one moment, you fall, you disappear. No one remembers you; people want to forget.”
One of the best ways to deal with winter is to just surrender to it. I spent a whole weekend doing very little else but reading this book, going to the market and cooking. It was fantastic. I could have gone out and struggled against the weather, subjecting everyone around me to my constant complaining about the cold, but instead I just gave up and snuggled in and it was brilliant. Winter is also a really great time for cooking: it heats the house, it nourishes and warms you from within and it’s a great time to just play around with new recipes to take your mind off the bleakness outside. I had seen this Donna Hay recipe for Crispy Chicken Breast with Cauliflower Risotto on Pinterest (I am a bit addicted - you can follow me here) and a slow Saturday night at home with my partner, a bottle of red and a film from the couch rugged up with blankets was the perfect chance to savour it. Each of the elements of this meal are very simple, they just take a bit of time pottering in the kitchen to put together. The cauliflower risotto is really just a basic risotto that’s strengthened in size and flavour by adding finely chopped cauliflower, bulking it out to twice it’s quantity without becoming either too much to digest or too much to serve, whilst also adding a natural creaminess without requiring dairy. The chicken is simply cooked, but beautifully moist and juicy in the centre. The final flourish comes from the crispy sage leaves and toasted walnuts. The crunch of the walnuts provide a great textural contrast to the creamy risotto, but the sage gives the dish a real warmth, perfect for a grey winter’s night. I chose to serve the dish without the rich, creamy mascarpone and instead with just a few slivers of parmesan which suited me fine, but if you’re suffering from a case of the winter blues, maybe the mascarpone isn’t the worst idea.
During this break in the middle of Five Star Billionaire I picked up Angela Meyer’s Captives - a collection of micro-fiction by a local Melbourne author. Micro fiction is something I’ve been writing a bit of myself recently, so I was keen to check out this collection. And as Tim Parks pointed out in this piece for the New York Review of Books, shorter works are perfect for an age of distracted readers. I particularly enjoyed the pieces in Captives that focus on every day stories - little glimpses of people’s lives that seem both engaging but relatable - such as ‘Halloween in Atlanta’ and ‘I Can Hear Music’.