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  1. Ah Hock is telling his life story to a writer. He is an ethnic Chinese Malay, has spent most of his life tantalisingly close to the economic miracle of Kuala Lumpur, and has been released from prison for killing a Bangladeshi migrant. This is a story of life on the edge, mostly in a world of petty crime, illegal migrant workers and aspirations of a middle class life. But Ah Hock knows that while he was never great at school, his strength is in people management - emotional intelligence, if you will. Through various phases of his life, failing to get on with his ailing mother, farmed out to various relatives, running the streets with his soulmate Keong. The lack of stability drives Ah Hock (with very little protestation) into illegality, and this leaves Ah Hock trapped in an underworld through debts, obligations and honour. Yet, Ah Hock does have some contact with the aspirations of a developing Malaysia. His wife is a make-up saleswoman working on a pyramid selling scheme, dreaming of cars and houses. The novel is told in an engaging way and for the first half, it feels lively and quirky - offering non-linear vignettes of life in a nation that is changing, switching back and forth between the past and the present day conversation with the writer. It feels as though the writer represents the new society and Ah Hock the old - with each trying to reconcile themselves with the other. But by about half way, the novel feels like it is lacking direction. It is all building up to the reveal about the killing - with little details being drip fed - but the non-linear narration coupled with the chaotic changes in Ah Hock's life does make the reader feel that this is more a collection of short works than a single life story. Four stars for a novel that starts well and drifts - but with a stronger narrative life it could have been five. ****0
  2. Tash Aw’s novels should be so good; he has a great ear for a title; his locations are to die for and his stories are brimming with ideas. But his previous two novels, although entertaining enough at the time, have left not the slightest trace of a memory on this reader’s mind. Five Star Billionaire seems to be more of the same. The novel stars five people (do you see what Tash did there?) who all hope of becoming billionaires. They are all outsiders from Malaysia (though Gary the disenchanted rock star might also have connections with Taiwan) and have all pitched up in Shangai. Their pasts, presents and futures all seem intertwined in degrees of coincidence that would make Dickens blush. The characters, and there are actually more than five of them, fall into three groups: the men, the women, and Gary. The men: Walter Chau, Justin, the Lims and others all seem much of a muchness. They want to get rich through property deals but have a sensitive side if you look. The women, too, are interchangeable with Phoebe, Yinghui and Yanyan seem to want to make money in the field of make-up, massage, lingerie and dating. You have to keep wide awake to remember which one is which because they sound the same, behave the same and think the same. Only Gary, the rock star who has run away from his management company and is holed up in a darkened flat looking at intimate internet sites offers any relief from the monotony. As for the settings – the novel bounces from Shanghai to Kota Bharu to Kuala Lumpur. Yet these wonderful cities with their mix of sounds and smells could be anywhere. Where are the images of eaves full of chirping birds and loudspeakers broadcasting the call to prayer in the deeply Islamic city of Kota Bharu? Where are the hoons driving around the town all night hooting their horns, perfectly sober in this dry city? And in Shanghai, where are the bicycle bells, the rows of ancient shops and cottages dwarfed by new developments, the fake pavilions outside the walls of the Yuyuan gardens? It is a criminal waste of locations to let them slip through unnoticed. Were this a first novel, you might say that the creation of a place is a skill still to be learned, but in a third consecutive novel it looks like a real weakness. So, if the characters are a bit samey and the setting seems a bit bland, what of the story? Sadly, that too is a bit of a fizzler. The various story lines sort of come together at the end and there is supposed to be a bit of an explanation, a bit of a backstory that explains it all. The trouble is, it doesn’t. The way the five stars behave towards one another makes no sense. There is no consistency over time and the backstory, when you analyse it, makes no sense. Five Star Billionaire had its moments; it did create the occasional moment of suspense (invariably left hanging for too long), it did have some witty turns of phrase. For the most part, the novel was not actually boring and sometimes was quite entertaining. But overall, it was not enough. This is the weakest of Tash’s three novels, and he seems to be in a bit of a downward spiral. ***00
  3. Tash Aw’s first novel – The Harmony Silk Factory – won much praise and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. The Map of the Invisible World is a much anticipated second novel. This time around, we have moved from 1950s Malaysia to 1960s Indonesia . Indonesia is at a crossroads – having won independence from the Netherlands some decade and a half earlier, Indonesia has to decide how to place itself on a world stage. It appears to have decided to rid itself of “foreigners”, to have turned away from the USA , to have looked towards the Soviet Union as an ally, to seek the return of New Guinea and to loathe Malaysia with a passion. Meanwhile, on a personal level, we follow orphan Adam, whose foster father – a Dutchman by the name of Karl de Willigen – has been arrested and faces an uncertain fate. Adam travels to Jakarta in the hope of learning the fate of his long lost brother Johan; meeting a mysterious white woman he has seen in Karl’s photographs; and perhaps rescuing Karl. Meanwhile, we learn a little about the psyche of the few westerners who stayed on in Indonesia – saw their dogged assertion of their Indionesian-ness in the face of a sceptical, hostile population. The first half of the novel is arresting. The characters are nicely delineated; the scenes set; and hints of political intrigue are made. We can a new nation coming to terms with its former colonists – we can see mistakes made in cutting itself off completely from those who may have been able to help build a new nation whilst understanding that the quest for racial purity can be a natural byproduct of the desire for self determination. And, perhaps, we can recognize similar mistakes being made around the world today. So for half a novel, all is good. Then, alas, it goes wrong. The introduction of national politics; the struggles between the Sukarno government and the communists; the gullibility of Adam as he is rapidly brought into the heart of the terrorist movement sacrifices character development for action. Sadly, the action is less interesting, less memorable than the scene setting. Breathless panic after breathless panic, and it all starts to blur. There is an interesting cameo by Sukarno himself – revealing a man caught in two minds in deciding whether to lead his people or subjugate his people – but it isn’t enough to sustain the novel. Moreover, every fourth chapter or so is followed by a chapterette showing the life of Johan, who has been adopted by a wealthy Malaysia family and is living a rather hollow high-life in Kuala Lumpur . It is never exactly obvious what value these chapterettes add, and increasingly they just become a repetitive and unnecessary distraction. Looking back on Tash Aw’s first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, one is struck by just how little impression it has left. It may have been am enjoyable read at the time, but ultimately it seems to have been forgettable. It’s not clear that The Map of the Invisible World is very different. Tash is clearly a talented writer, but his work lacks something. He is able to set up a situation well, but his plotting is just not strong enough, and comes at the expense of the more personal writing that has attracted the reader. Frustrating… ***00
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