The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng

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Reviewed by Rob Spence

A new novel from Tan Twan Eng is a major literary event. His many admirers have been waiting over  ten years since the publication of his previous work, The Garden of Evening Mists, which was shortlisted for the Booker, won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the Man Asian Literary Prize, and was also adapted into a successful film. So let us state at the outset that those admirers will not be disappointed by The House of Doors: it is a sumptuous, compelling tale that ingeniously weaves fact and fiction together in three narrative strands spanning nearly forty years.

As in his previous novels, the action here takes place largely in colonial Malaya, or more precisely Penang, Tan’s home town, which was also the setting of his first novel, The Gift of Rain. Indeed, one character from that debut work makes a couple of fleeting appearances in this new one. Central to the story here is the brief sojourn, in 1921, of Somerset Maugham in Penang, a stop on his extensive tour of Asia, which furnished him with a rich source of material for his novels and stories. To my knowledge, this is the first significant work of fiction to feature Maugham as a named character, though arguably Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, whose protagonist Kenneth Toomey is evidently based on Maugham, was there first.

William Somerset Maugham, “Willie” to his friends, arrives with Gerald Haxton, his secretary-lover, to stay with Robert and Lesley Hamlyn, stalwart members of Penang’s English community, he a lawyer suffering from shell shock and lung problems after service in the trenches, she much younger, a former music teacher. Over the course of two weeks, his presence is the catalyst for Lesley to reveal long-suppressed secrets from her earlier life, as well as her role in a notorious murder case. This real life case concerns Lesley’s friend Ethel Proudlock, convicted of murdering her lover. The main narrative is bookended by an older Lesley, alone in her house in South Africa in 1947, reflecting on her life in Penang in those weeks in 1921, and also on momentous events in 1910. So, three narratives intertwine, linked by the life experience of Lesley Hamlyn, née Crosbie, whose name will ring a bell for readers of Maugham. Lesley is a first-person narrator in all three narratives, with her voice alternating in the 1921 narrative with a third-person narrator relating Willie’s viewpoint. The interlinking of three timelines, featuring real life characters as well as fictional ones, makes this novel seem like a tricksy Peter Ackroyd-style postmodern romp, but it is anything but: the threads are subtly drawn together, and the reader is always immersed in the unfolding story as the events of 1910 cast their shadow on the Lesley of 1921 and 1947. The use of a real historical figure is fraught with danger of course, but Tan very skilfully fills in the detail of Maugham’s biography  – the miserable childhood, the medical training, the war experience, the bitter marriage – whilst never losing focus on the Penang experience.

As well as Maugham, the novel features another significant historical figure: Sun Yat Sen, the Chinese revolutionary and eventually President of China, who spent time in Penang in 1910 before being deported after denouncing British rule. Lesley is drawn into his world, and her life is changed as a result.

Readers of Tan’s previous novels will recall his mastery in the evocation of time and place: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures that make up the essence of Penang are beautifully presented. The sensual world created by the intermingling of many cultures is cleverly incorporated into the story, and forms the backdrop to Lesley’s narrative. The shophouses, street hawkers, clothes, hairstyles, and most importantly, the food is described with real relish: here’s Lesley, delighting in her favourite dish:

I forgot my annoyance with the Macalisters when Ah Keng returned with, to my delight, two bowls of shaved ice and a brass pot of chilled coconut milk. Floating in the milk were little worms of lentil noodles, dyed green with the juice of pandanus leaves. Chendol, my favourite pudding. I lifted my eyebrows at Robert. He grinned as he ladled the coconut milk into our bowls of shaved ice…I looked down at my bowl, hiding the sudden heat of tears in my eyes. I blinked them away and poured a lavish serving of gula Malacca syrup over my chendol. The coconut milk was cold and creamy, and the green noodles, fragrant with pandanus, lifted the sticky, smoky sweetness of the gula Malacca.

Tan uses a Maugham quotation as an epigraph to his novel: “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.” It’s an appropriate one for this deeply satisfying novel that uses some documented history to build a fascinating, moving and resonant narrative. In one of several laudatory blurbs reproduced by the publishers in the beautiful hardback edition, William Boyd calls this book “a tour de force.” He ‘s not wrong.

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Tan Twan Eng, The House of Doors (Canongate, 2023) 978-1838858292, 306pp., hardback

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