Penang, 1921. Lesley and Robert Hamlyn are expecting an important visitor. “Willie” Somerset Maugham, who has been travelling through Asia collecting stories for his writing, has asked to stay with his old friend and his wife at Cassowary House. Accompanied by Gerard, his young secretary and lover, the author finds refuge from his hidden financial struggles and soon he will find a new trusting friend who will gift him yet another story – and a way out of financial ruin. What develops from this premise is a lofty tragedy that gracefully navigates through the decades, with altering points of view from Lesley and Maugham.
Though the author is the famous person of interest, Lesley is the true protagonist of this novel about love and loss. As a first person narrator, she slowly reveals three intersecting stories: first, that of the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen and how her and her husband got involved in his activities when he was in exile in Penang. Then there is the scandal of Ethel Proudlock, an English woman in Kuala Lumpur’s colonial community who shot a Strait Chinese man who had allegedly attempted to rape her and might become the first white woman condemned to death or her crimes. And finally, most intimately, Lesley reveals to Willie the story of her marriage, of her husband’s infidelity and her own love affair.
While we get to know Maugham, he remains a relatively passive figure, underlined by the use of the third person, when the narrative shits to his point of view. He becomes the canvas, on which others paint their stories. Through his excellent listening skills, he gets deep into the depths of Lesley’s moral and emotional turmoil.
Tan Twan Eng, Penang-born Straits Chinese himself, inhabits the perspective and voice of the coloniser and does so with great delicacy. The prose seems consciously crafted without feeling inauthentic. It reads as if barely hidden behind a thin veil, the century that has passed between the true events The House of Doors is based on and now creates an effect that is distancing without being detached. As a reader, you are just far away enough to be able to perceive yourself as an observer and to be aware of the different layers of reflection taking place.
The story moves along quietly, at times slowed down by the different interests the author tries to work into his narrative. For much of the book, I thought this was a gentle and enjoyable, though not necessarily astonishing novel. Until, towards the end, Lesley and Willie go for a swim at night – and the description of this scene is so mesmerising, it put the entire book in a new light retrospectively.
Published by Canongate, 2023