Eurgh. This book underlines perfectly the reasons why all my attempted Booker Prize Longlist reads have failed in the past. It came VERY close to ending my attempt this year, as at around the halfway point, I was so very bored that I nearly threw in the towel. But I persisted, and I finished it, mostly so I could finally complete a fricking Booker Challenge. That’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about it. Apparently, Aw’s previous novels have been described as “mesmerizing,” “haunting,” “breathtaking,” “mercilessly gripping,” “seductive,” and “luminous.” That is the only time those words will appear in my review of his latest work.
The blurb would have you believe this is an expansive and eye-opening novel. It’s certainly the former, but I found it to be the opposite of the latter, since I struggled to keep awake while ploughing through seemingly endless reams of Aw’s insipid and workmanlike prose. There are five interlinking narratives, each following a different character. These are interspersed with chapters from the self help manual which gives Aw’s novel its title. We have Phoebe, who has come to Shanghai on the promise of a job which it transpires does not exist. Gary, a pop star whose life spins off its axis, Britney Spears style. Justin, son and heir of a hugely wealthy family, who breaks down when tasked with shoring up his family’s waning fortunes. Yinghui, a self-made businesswoman who has history with Gary’s family. And finally, Walter Chao, the titular billionaire.
I bored myself just typing that out. So you can imagine how much fun I had trying to push through north of 400 pages of these dull characters, not really being brought to very much life by relentlessly average writing. The way the narratives are going to cross over each other is pretty obvious from fairly early on and Aw doesn’t spring any surprises. The only character I was even remotely invested in was Gary, the conflicted (in every way, even sexually) pop star, and even then I could never remember his name when I was reading a non-Gary chapter. I kept thinking he was called Keith and then would be all “oh right, it’s GARY” when he rolled back around.
The only way I managed to get through to the end of the book was by first skim reading and then skipping altogether the chapters which are from the self help manual. Not only are they long winded and arrogant, but they are dry dry DRY. In fact, the whole book is as dry and unappetising as three day old toast. This is not Aw’s first time of finding favour with the Booker judges, as he was longlisted for The Harmony Silk Factory in 2006. A year I didn’t bother to even attempt the challenge of reading the whole list. How eerily prescient of me.