"House of Doors" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
Tan Twan Eng Is the author of three books that have been nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. His latest book nominated for the prize is “The House of Doors,” (2023) an elegantly written historical fiction novel based on the writer Somerset Maugham’s two weeks in Penang, a state in northwest Malaysia.
Maugham and his secretary Gerald Haxton are in Southeast Asia visiting Maugham's friends, Robert Hamlyn, and his wife, Lesley. While Gerald enjoys the company of other men at night, Maugham, recovering from an illness, rests in his friends’ mansion, hoping to gather material he can use for his short stories and novels. Maugham is already famous for his works which include “Of Human Bondage” and “The Moon and Sixpence.”
When Lesley begins telling Maugham stories of events occurring in her life in 1910 that were traumatic, life-changing, and adventurous, Maugham finds all the material he needs. His charm and sympathetic demeanor encourage her to reveal secrets that she has never shared. Her tales later show up in his short story collection “The Casuarina Tree,” published in 1926.
Lesley’s memories include a murder, a betrayal, blackmail, and a discovery that shatters her belief in her marriage. The Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat Sen features prominently in Lesley’s narrative. Yat Sen visited Penang in 2010 to raise funds for the successful overthrow of the warlords who controlled southern China in the early 1900’s. His presence is still felt in the state even though, in 1921, he is serving in China as the President of the Republic of China.
“The House of Doors” refers to a small store nestled at the end of a row of shops in Penang. Within the plain store are doors collected by one of the characters in the book. The doors have been rescued from abandoned temples and hang from the ceilings, creating a maze-like effect that symbolizes the twists and turns of the story. Many of the doors are adorned with poetry written in Chinese calligraphy. All have significance for Lesley, a frequent visitor to the store.
Eng’s book is gracefully written with strikingly elegant sentences that convey the exquisiteness of the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Weeks after finishing the novel, I find myself opening to a random chapter to reread the words that offer such loveliness.
I also found myself researching Maugham, Sun Yat Sen, the country of Malaysia, and the state of Penang. (The gift of historical fiction is that it can often lead the reader to explore other places and people of the world.)
Eng’s second book, “The Garden of Evening Mists,” (also a movie) was the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and shortlisted for the Man Booker literary prize.