Fiction — print. Spiegel & Grau, 2013. 379 pgs. Review copy from the publisher.
Set to be published by Spiegel & Grau in July 2013, Aw’s novel charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers as their forge new lives for themselves in the rapidly changing city of Shanghai. Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe is a factory girl who has come to China brimming with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed.
Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is the shadowy billionaire named Walter Chao, ruthless, manipulative, and ultimately alone in the world.
There something so intriguing about these five sad characters that had me turning the pages late into the night. As a reader, you watch these characters climb and fall as Shanghai beats on, relentlessly changing under the feet of those who are desperate for it to remain the same.
Oddly enough, one of the more interesting characters is not a main character. Yanyan begins as a minor character, but she ends up playing such a big role in the story that it is hard to believe no chapter was ever written from her point of view. I use “point of view” loosely because other than the parts written by Walter, the rest of the story is told from a third-person narrator following the characters.
I have never traveled to Shanghai nor have I been to Malaysia, but the motivations and behaviors of the characters ring true despite the difference between myself and the characters. And I was so easily able to slip into their lives and follow along, which I would consider the mark of a wonderful novel.
However, this cynical, downtrodden story might leave a reader disappointed as they turn the last page. I, for one, started out that way, and I remember reaching the end and being surprised that there wasn’t more to the novel. However, the more I considered the novel, the more I thought about its contents, I began to appreciate its starkness and darkness.