This, in other words, is an attempt at a major novel that in important ways fails. Great books have an unmissable originality and flair about them, but I found this novel, by contrast, distinctly hard-going.
Yet the publishers have spared themselves no pains in their pre-publicity. They even promise that “proposed social media activity will create online profiles for the novel’s characters to allow direct interaction with readers.” Who will monitor the resulting activity, you wonder? Teams of scribes trained in the thought-patterns of the five? Presumably Aw won’t be directly involved.
It so happens that there’s a Taiwanese novelist, also with a Malaysian background, whose work is preferable to this novelist’s. He’s Zhang Guixing (張貴興), whose exotic novel My South Seas Sleeping Beauty was reviewed in these pages on May 13, 2007.
One chapter of Zhang’s colorful evocation of life in Borneo, replete with ghosts and magical monsters, and very funny, is for me worth all of Aw’s meticulous depiction of the victims of the neuroses fed by Shanghai’s commercial modernity.
One thing that characterizes Aw’s sensibility, but is certainly not at all typical of Zhang Guixing’s, is Englishness. Maybe our author has spent too long living in close contact with the fastidiousness induced by the UK’s cold and misty climate, and needs to get back East to re-experience its more seductive aromas. Who knows, he might even find some of them lurking in Shanghai itself.