The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng – Book Review
Less is definitely more in ‘The House of Doors’ where its author Tan Twan Eng delivers his story with a light, economical touch. You don’t need to set aside hours to read this book but you do need to concentrate: the prose is precise and perfectly balanced, every word is exquisitely placed and the book’s themes are intricately woven throughout. The story pulls at you. There’s yearning, longing and sadness deep inside the characters. Love, loyalty and betrayal lie at its core.
Set for the most part in Malaysia in 1921, the story is about the famous novelist W. Somerset Maugham’s visit to his friends, the Hamlyns, who live a colonial life on the Straits Settlement of Penang. The Hamlyns socialise with the great and the good of the expat community and enormous attention is paid to what can and cannot be said, and what can and cannot be done. Scandalous acts are masked behind marriages deemed upright and proper.
During Maugham’s stay, Lesley Hamlyn, wife to his long-time friend Robert, reveals truths and about her life, including her marriage, and those of others. Maugham and Lesley enjoy conversations stretching long into the evenings after Robert has retired to bed. She is aware that Maugham, who they affectionately call Willie, could be using the information she imparts for use in his work.
Fact and fiction
‘The House of Doors’ by Tan Twan Eng combines real historical events with fiction, providing viewpoint characters Lesley and Maugham with key evets from which to hang their stories. There’s the Proudlock scandal where, in 1911, Ethel Proudlock shot dead a man at her house using her husband’s revolver. Lesley is close friends with Ethel and a witness at her trial.
Lesley also becomes involved with the activities of the revolutionary activist Dr Sun Yat Sen. Politics and political zeal help to widen the story, although Tan Twan Eng is careful to contain this thread.
Maugham, meanwhile, is desperate for new material to restore his bank balance and searches for a way to use the stories he is amassing to good effect in his own fiction. Travelling with his lover Gerald Haxton, Maugham is naturally troubled by his own marriage and the spending habits of his wife back home in London. Homosexuality is a key theme that is explored with a refreshingly gentle honesty.
Throughout, strong visual descriptions of Penang bring the story to life. Lesley describes seeing ‘a middle-aged woman with a batik sarong wrapped around her bosom… napping in a ratan lounge chair, a newspaper lying on her fat stomach.’
The Malaysian landscape is described with ethereal beauty. ‘The mountains on the mainland were emerging from the night, hardening once again into their eternal form.’
Tan Twan Eng has the ability to pepper scenes with nuggets of description that are simply breathtaking. Never does he overdo it. Lesley and Robert set out for an early morning horse ride whilst living their later years in Doornfontein, South Africa: ‘… the air smelled of the rested earth and the day was still just a glowing filament stretched taut across the horizon.’
Highly anticipated 3rd novel
‘The House of Doors’ is the third book by Tan Twan Eng, whose previous novels have earned him the reputation as a fine writer. With a long gap between his last book and this – ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ was published in 2012 – the highly anticipated wait for this new novel has been worth it. The story is elegiac in tone, the prose thick with emotional awareness. This is a book that can touch the soul.
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