Tash Aw's earlier novel, Five Star Billionaire (2013), followed the get-rich-quick schemes and mixed fortunes of a group of newcomers to Shanghai. Some of them were drawn in by the city's pulse and energy, others believed they could feed off its booming success. Eventually, though, the scales fall from one character's eyes. "Life here is not really life," he says. "It is a competition."
The cast of Aw's latest novel would wholeheartedly echo that sentiment. We, the Survivors is another tale of lofty hopes and misplaced dreams, only this time the characters face struggles that are a matter of life and death. The latter is at the heart of the book: opening it and stalking its pages until the brutal reckoning that constitutes a conclusion.
The setting is Malaysia, where Aw grew up. His protagonist, Ah Hock, explains how one night he killed a man and, still dazed by his actions, walked away from the scene of the crime. It took the police more than two months to arrest him because the victim was a foreigner and as such was of little significance to authorities. "Bangla, Myanmar, Nepal … even Africa. It's as though they all come from one big nameless continent," he says.
After three years in prison, Ah Hock is out and telling his story to Su-Min, a sociology postgraduate. After describing how his Chinese ancestors settled in Malaysia, he takes us on a tour through his hardscrabble upbringing and teenage years spent in a backwater village. We hear of his failure at school, his succession of menial jobs and his scrapes with wild-child best friend, Keong.
When the pair move to Kuala Lumpur, Keong transforms from delinquent to small-time gangster. Thriving in shady lines of business, he is appalled to discover his friend is slaving away for long hours in restaurants: "Brother, you got to give the orders, not take them," he says. In time they drift apart and Ah Hock returns to his hometown and finds a position as a foreman on a fish farm supervising overworked and underpaid migrants. He gets married, settles down and holds out for an elusive pay rise from his wealthy employer.
After 10 years without contact, Keong turns up like a bad penny. Ah Hock tries to distance himself from Keong, seeing his exploits as trouble and their old friendship as a closed chapter in his life.
But when the fish farm workers are wiped out by a cholera epidemic, Ah Hock realises his "manpower problem" can be solved by "labour contractor" Keong, who has at his disposal teams of cheap, job-hungry Bangladeshis. But it isn't long before Ah Hock is out of his depth, dealing with a middleman who "didn't know any other way to live than in the shadows" and workers who are not only illegal migrants but half-dead refugees.
Five Star Billionaire was a novel in the form of a self-help guide. We, the Survivors is a novel that reads like oral testimony, with each chapter comprising another interview session. Ah Hock has been asked by Su-Min to talk, which suits him perfectly. "I want to empty the contents of my head after all these years," he says.
At scattered intervals he breaks off and refers to the killing or gives a flashback to the trial – but these moments are only tantalising glimpses, teasing asides, and he is soon back to his story. We read on, looking out for grudges and grievances, and a guilty party that may have slighted him and, in doing so, unwittingly signed their own death warrants. All is made clear at the end, by which point Aw has shown us that a why-do-it can be as thrilling as a whodunnit.
But the novel is not only an engaging mystery. Aw paints a vivid picture of a country scarred by poverty, racism and corruption. There are searing images and memorable set pieces involving exploited and disposable migrants whose every day is a renewed fight to stay alive. "You get sick, you get the sack," Ah Hock informs his wide-eyed interlocutor. Some migrants meet worse fates.
Aw also keeps his reader hooked by having Ah Hock recount his life in fits and starts, and with regular detours. Instead of a streamlined chronology he surprises us by fast forwarding or harking back. In a particularly poignant section halfway through, he rewinds completely and shows how he began a new phase of his life when his father walked out and left his beleaguered mother as the sole provider.
But charging the whole proceedings is the simmering menace of Keong. Ah Hock likens his childhood friend's presence to a thorny spine in the base of his foot, "always threatening to turn into something more painful, even if I never knew exactly what shape that pain would assume".
When pain materialises, a strong novel is transformed into a compelling one.