The House of Doors
by Tan Twan Eng
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Pub Date 17 Oct 2023 | Archive Date 14 Oct 2023
Bloomsbury USA, Bloomsbury Publishing
From the bestselling, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Garden of Evening Mists, a spellbinding novel about love and betrayal, colonialism and revolution, storytelling and redemption.
“The House of Doors is brilliantly observed and full of memorable characters. It is so well-written, everything so effortlessly dramatized, the narrative so well structured and paced, that this is a book that will mesmerize readers far into the future.” ―Colm Tóibín, author of The Magician
The year is 1921. Lesley Hamlyn and her husband, Robert, a lawyer and war veteran, are living at Cassowary House on the Straits Settlement of Penang. When “Willie” Somerset Maugham, a famed writer and old friend of Robert's, arrives for an extended visit with his secretary Gerald, the pair threatens a rift that could alter more lives than one.
Maugham, one of the great novelists of his day, is beleaguered: Having long hidden his homosexuality, his unhappy and expensive marriage of convenience becomes unbearable after he loses his savings-and the freedom to travel with Gerald. His career deflating, his health failing, Maugham arrives at Cassowary House in desperate need of a subject for his next book. Lesley, too, is enduring a marriage more duplicitous than it first appears. Maugham suspects an affair, and, learning of Lesley's past connection to the Chinese revolutionary, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, decides to probe deeper. But as their friendship grows and Lesley confides in him about life in the Straits, Maugham discovers a far more surprising tale than he imagined, one that involves not only war and scandal but the trial of an Englishwoman charged with murder. It is, to Maugham, a story worthy of fiction.
A mesmerizingly beautiful novel based on real events, The House of Doors traces the fault lines of race, gender, sexuality, and power under empire, and dives deep into the complicated nature of love and friendship in its shadow.
“An amazingly transporting novel about love, desire, and duty, The House of Doors does what the very best stories do -- it draws us into many fascinating worlds at once: The British Empire's incursions into South-East Asia; the secret life of one of England's finest writers; a forgotten murder trial . . . Weaving all this together with great skill and power, bringing the reader a surfeit of pleasure, Tan Twan Eng also teaches us a crucial lesson: never trust a writer.” ―Jonathan Lee, author of THE GREAT MISTAKE and HIGH DIVE
“Eng is quite simply one of the best novelists writing today.” ―The Philadelphia Inquirer on THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 84 members
This is one extraordinary-special book.
From beginning to end.
I am blown away!!!
I absolutely love Tan Twan Eng . . .
(and very sad I’ve read each of the novels — and haven’t a new one at my fingertips).
During the epilogue my eyes became teary —tears I wanted to hold back — until finally, it wasn’t possible… a gush of tears over-took me. I was a sopping wet noodle.
This novel is beautifully engrossing — filled with fascinating heartfelt and heart-wrenching gripping history
— YES!!! A MASTERPIECE!!!
It’s based true events. It’s a work of fiction; yet it features characters and events drawn from history…a murder in 1911 which Eng set in 1910 to coincide with Sun Yat-Sen’s extended stay in Penang.
One of my top 10 - ‘ever’ favorite books!!!!
I’m busy today with my husband Paul, but I will return in a day or two or three to write a review.
I highly highly HIGHLY recommend it.
Those who have read Tan Twan Eng before - will not be disappointed.
REVIEW….( I’m back)
Attempting to offer up a more detail book report here….but be clear ….the best thing I can say to others is “just read it!!!”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS….
Books like “The House of Doors” is a great reminder to why we read. It’s an exquisitely written moving novel …. the type we want to both devour and savor….and will think about long after finishing it. ….sad that it had to end.
“The House of Doors” is divided into three sections.
It begins and ends in Doornfontein, South Africa in 1947.... with Lesley Hamlin as our narrator. She and Robert moved into a modest bungalow on the property of Robert’s cousin, Bernard, who was a sheep farmer. It was an adjustment for Lesley and Robert ……
Lesley says: “The vastness, the emptiness of Karoo countryside made me want to weep when we first moved here. Everything was so bleak — the land, the light, the faces of the people.I was a child of the equator, Born under monsoon skies; I pined for the cloying humanity of Penang”.
Lesley missed her garden — the trees she planted - flowers, shrubs, their high ceilings in Cassowary House, her old busy life of the different committees she was on, but with time, she did adjust realizing she no longer cared about those things.
The bulk of the storytelling takes place in Penang, Malaysia.
The year is 1921, Lesley and her husband, Robert (a lawyer and war veteran) are living at their Cassowary House on the Straits Settlement of Penang.
W. Somerset Maugham, the famous novelist was an old friend of Robert’s. Robert and Lesley call him Willie.
After a package arrives — the book “The Casuarina Tree”….by Maugham, one of Robert’s favorites….(Robert owns every book of his)….Willie and his secretary, Gerald come for a two week visit.
Willie has hidden his homosexuality…..and was married to Syrie. They lived in London, had one daughter, but Willie traveled so much with his ‘secretary’ (cover-up for lover) so often he wasn’t home much.. Their marriage of convenience was unraveling.
Willie has other problems besides his marriage … he suffers a huge financial loss — and his health is failing as well.
Lesley and Robert’s marriage is a kind of deception too. Behind the facade…are hidden true feelings … as well as adulterous affairs by both.
Daily routines take place when Willie and Gerald are visiting. Willie spends a few hours a day writing in his room. There are also hours spent at the beach for Willie and Gerald….
Breakfast and dinners are spent on the veranda with Robert and Lesley.
One of the standouts is the friendship that grows between Lesley and Willie. Lesley confides about her life in the straits — more than she thought she would tell him. And it was more than Willie expected to hear. Lesley had a personal connection to the Chinese revolutionary, Sun Yet Sen. ….
And not only does Willie (and readers) learn about the war and a mysterious scandal— but OMG….we learn about a murder trial that takes place in Kuala Lumpur, involving Ethel Proudlock, (Lesley’s-friend-an English woman) ….that is gripping!!!! > and fascinating!!!
It’s a story Maugham becomes interested in and wants to write about.
There is so much to love: history, topography….the complexities of betrayal, adultery, murder, friendships, marriages, art, literature, music, philosophers, poets, scholars, political strife, corruption, race, gender, secrets, sexuality, illness, death, loss, love…
With three-dimensional memorable characters ….Eng’s depiction of their relationships— particularly between Lesley and Willie is masterly.
This might be the closest thing to a perfect novel that I’ve ever read.
“The world is so still, so quiescent, that I wonder if it has stopped turning. But then, high above the land, I see a tremor in the air. A pair of raptors, far from their mountain eyrie. For a minute or two I want to believe they are brahminy kites, but of course they cannot be”.
“My eyes, follow the two birds as the drift on the span of their outstretched wings, writing circles over circles on the empty page of sky”.
Highly recommended….a book favorite!
Tan Twan Eng's brilliantly written book uses historical and narrative drama to create memorable characters seemingly straight out of Somerset Maugham's playbook. Maugham, known as "Willie," with his partner Gerald, shows up in Penang to visit his good friend Robert, a barrister. Robert's wife, Lesley has a penchant for a local artist who has created a house of doors, and Robert, as it turns out, is having an affair with a local man. Lesley also has an interest in Sun Yat Sen and his political trials. Sen was revered by both the Communist Party in China and by the Nationalist Party in Taiwan, and Lesley is definitely an admirer.
Lesley is also drawn into the drama of her friend Ethel's trial for murder, another real-life aspect of the plot of the book. The descriptions of Panang, including the casuarina trees on the beach and other tropical scenes could not be more artfully described; the air, the water, and the gardens are painted carefully and beautifully, as are the houses.
At the same time, Eng considers the topics of race, sexuality, colonialism, culture, and ethnicity. The book is beautifully constructed and almost impossible to put down. The description of Maugham as a famous writer is delicately drawn, and the reader learns a lot about how and why Maugham writes what he does. We also learn that he has lost almost all his money, and that he is desperate to commence writing as quickly and as much as possible.
It's hard to imagine that Maugham traveled as much as he did, especially in Europe and Asia, and that he knows so many people, especially in South Asia. He is well known. His ability to describe characters and the drama of their lives is fascinating, and his incisive look at the power of people is mirrored in their interactions. Eng's characters are gently drawn and yet they could not be stronger nor more well defined.
Thank you to Bloomsbury Press and Net Galley for giving me the opportunity to read this book.
Gorgeous prose that takes you straight to 1920s Malaysia, a captivating story, and a satisfying end.
Tan Twan Eng's new novel reads like a warm and quiet summer evening. Lesley Hamlyn and her husband Robert are a well-to-do white couple living in Penang in the 1920's when Robert's friend, the celebrated writer W. Somerset Maugham (whom they call Willie) comes to stay with them. The outwardly successful Maugham is in dire financial straits and knows he must write to keep his creditors at bay, so he looks to local society gossip for inspiration. As Willie spends more time talking to Lesley, he begins to suspect that she may have had an affair with Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who had spent time in Penang over a decade ago when he was a revolutionary drumming up support to overthrow China's imperial dynasty. But as Lesley gradually reveals some of the secrets she's been keeping, Willie finds that the stories he gets from her are not at all the ones he expected to find.
I knew exactly zero things about W. Somerset Maugham before I read this novel, but now I'm thinking I need to start reading some of his stories. Eng's book imagines some of the events that could've inspired Maugham's book The Casuarina Tree, and I would be very interested to compare them. This is such a beautifully written book that really paints an atmospheric portrait of Malaysia in the waning days of British control, and although we only get the perspectives of Lesley and Willie, you do get a sense of the "angmohs", or some of them, starting to become more cognizant of how they are perceived by the local population. Eng's evocative prose immerses you in its world and characters. Real people such as Maugham, his secretary and lover Gerald Haxton, Sun Yat-Sen, and a woman named Ethel Proudlock who stood trial for shooting a man in self-defense are deftly woven into an absorbing plot with fictional characters about love and memory and the power of stories.
After reading The House of Doors, I wanted to take time to consider the beauty, breadth and depth of this book. The further into it, I was able to understand the ingenuity of it. Tan Twan Eng was able to combine diverse historical people and events including Somerset Maugham, Sun Yat Sen, Ethel Proudlock, a woman accused of murder, into a compelling story of love, lies, deception, betrayal, sexuality, caste, and societal norms by creating Lesley and Robert Hamlyn at the center of the drama.
The story opens in 1947, in South Africa; but, quickly takes us to 1921, Penang, where Robert and Lesley are part of the high society ex-pat community. Robert, a lawyer, has been having health issues from being exposed to gas during WWI. He is excited to learn his boarding school roommate, Willie, aka Somerset Maugham to us, is coming for a visit and to recuperate after a stint in the jungle with his secretary/lover, Gerald. Robert warns Lesley that Willie likes to take ideas for his books from people he meets and she should be careful about what she says. Lesley, rather cool to Willie at first, decides to tell him her story, even knowing the potential danger about opening up hers and Robert’s lives.
Willie is fascinated by her involvement with trying to raise money for Sun Yat Sen to stage another rebellion and her relationship to him and his volunteers. He is also fascinated by her trying to help her friend Ethel avoid the death penalty for killing a man. We are transported back to 1910-1911. In addition, during his two-week stay Willie learns of some financial difficulties putting his home and marriage at risk.
Thank you Canongate and NetGalley and Tan Twan Eng for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.
The beautiful writing captures the moods and backdrops making you feel like you are fly on the wall observing the action as it happens. I love how the author has taken names from Maugham’s books and twisted them to name his characters and incorporates his publishing symbol. It is a great read. I hope I don’t have to wait so long for a new book by Eng. Enjoy.
I have read the author's other books so when I saw this title I knew I had to read it. The author did not disappoint.
Such a lyrical novel about history, love, the mores of the era, and the love of landscape. I did not skip one word in this novel. It is another beautiful offering from Eng. Thank you Netgalley!
Sensual atmosphere; Somerset Maugham, Historical Fiction
Beautiful, sensual novel that brings Penang in the 1920s to life in a way that only Eng can. Full of the many subtleties involved in being a human in a variety of relationships -- with other people, with the culture of the time and place, and with oneself -- it is a book you need to just sink into. As others have pointed out, it is very slow paced and the plot is spare, but a lovely experience if you put yourself in the right mood.
Like his previous books, Tan Twan Eng’s The House of Doors is a book so engrossing and entertaining that you can’t put it down. Its two fascinating protagonists, dual narrative perspectives, multiple time frames, and skillful evocation of Penang make you wish the book would never end. A must read.
This was a beautifully written book based on true events. The writing though! Just beautifully written and lovely overall. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher!
Malaysian Author Tan Twan Eng, (the Booker Prize-shortlisted for The Garden of Evening Mist)
has created a portal to the 1920's in Kuala Lumpur.
In The House of Doors we meet Lesley and her husband - two expats living a pampered life who welcome a visitor, the famous author W."Willie" Somerset Maugham. Willie arrives with his secretary lover Gerald and in his two weeks stay upend the status quo,
In the 20's Maugham was an actual well known author and this story is based on many of the truths of his life. An additional focus of the story is that of Lesley's friend Ethel who is incarcerated after she shoots a man attempting to rape her.
Other famous individuals are in the novel including the Chinese national Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Maugham, while fighting demons of his own proves to be an excellent listener and he takes in many of the secrets of his hosts.
Like all amazing novels, there are broad themes of power, love, secrecy, race and class. Eng has fashioned a historical story that will play within your mind for many years to come. #bloomsbury #Thehouseofdoors #tantwaneng
This was the perfect read when I needed to get out of my slump. It's a sweeping and captivating story that made me feel like I was right there in 1920s Malaysia with these characters.
On my last trip to London a few months ago I made an early morning trip to Waterstones, waited for the doors to open and then found a clerk willing to suggest the latest and the best she has read recently. Among the books she placed in my hands was The House of Doors. I’d read the author’s The Gift of Rain and knew what a great atmospheric writer he is but I didn’t buy it, I only have so much room in a carry on and I figured I would get the audio when back in the states. Ahh the regrets to find it would not be published in the U.S till October. I went immediately to NetGalley to see if the ARC was available. Luckily it was and I was given the eBook for this honest review.
This is a book that slowly reveals itself but grabbed this reader in the early pages when it began the story with Somerset Maugham’s visit to narrator’s home in Penang Malaysia. The time is 1921 and the narrator and the primary point of view is that of Lesley Hamlyn but also that of Somerset Maugham known as Willie in these pages. Eng does a beautiful job at setting the reader in the heavy, humid atmosphere of Malaysia
“the air felt as if it had been painted on my skin with a hot dripping brush”.
And in a place where the British have set themselves above and separate from the locals.
Almost the first 25% of the book is taken up with putting the reader in the setting and in giving an understanding of the background of this time and place. It is slow going at first but like dipping into a pool of warm water the beauty of the sentences soon enveloped me. I did find myself anxious for the plot but was satisfied with finding chapters narrated by Maugham and his own journey to this area and learning more of that story—fictional but based on his writings at that time, with references to the books that would soon be finished and later published. If you love the works of Maugham like I do this made up for any distinct plot in the early going.
Soon the layers of this narrative begin to peel back. There is a trial of an English women who shoots and kills a family friend who she says was trying to rape her. There is Sun Yet-Sen, a true historical figure of the time who is in town to raise money for his cause of overthrowing the current Chinese emperor and establishing a republic in China. There is Lesley the narrator getting involved with this cause and finding something she can truly believe in and fall into. There is a mixing of races, memory, loss, secrets and important symbols and so much more that languidly all co-exists and then there is the House of Doors.
“hanging from the ceiling beams were more doors, carefully spaced apart and suspended on wires so thin they seemed to be floating in the air. We walked between the rows of painted doors, our shoulders and elbows setting them spinning slowly. Each door pirouetted open to reveal another set of doors, and I had the dizzying sensation that I was walking down the corridors of a constantly shifting maze, each pair of doors opening into another passageway, and another, giving me no inkling of where I would eventually emerge.”
How perfectly this house seemed to reflect the story being told. No direct way through it but one that is navigated step by step. The heart of the story is told by Lesley each evening in retrospect as she tells it to Maugham over their evening drinks alone in the garden. She reveals secrets no one else has ever known and the reader listens along with Maugham to her beautiful but heart-breaking story.
“I could not tell where fiction became memory, and memory fiction”
It is a wonderful read. Incredible in its slow reveal and the images. I don’t think there will be much that will top it.
Thank you NetGalley for the ARC! This is a beautifully written novel with lush prose and settings that most likely will surprise you. Reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in a way, it explores unexpected friendships and relationships in a nuanced way, given its interesting political and cultural landscape.
I love to find a historical novel set in a part of the world which I know not much about. Penang has been at the crossroad of different cultures and influences for centuries. The story is told by a British woman Lesley and the famous writer Somerset Maugham who spent some time at her house. Secrets are being revealed in beautiful prose - I was hooked from page one.
"The House of Doors" by Tan Twan Eng is a literary masterpiece that effortlessly transports readers to a bygone era. Eng's prose paints languid images of muggy days in colonial Malaysia, setting a stark contrast to the hedonistic world of parties and clubs enjoyed by the English elite. The writing is remarkably evocative, skillfully capturing the essence of time and place, making it feel as though one is right there, amidst the sweltering heat and colonial tensions.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is its exploration of Somerset Maugham, shedding light on his dual role as both a medical doctor and a storyteller who skillfully wove the people he met into his narratives. This insight adds a layer of depth and fascination to the story. While the book may have a slow start, it is crucial to push through because the patient reader will be richly rewarded. Eng delves deep into the complexities of colonialism, identity, homosexuality, and love triangles, crafting a narrative that is as emotionally resonant as it is thought-provoking. "The House of Doors" is a powerful exploration of the intricacies of human relationships and the lasting impact of historical forces on personal lives, making it a must-read for anyone seeking a captivating and immersive literary experience.
I have waited more than a decade for Tan Twan Eng's next book, but the wait was well worth it. In The House of Doors, set in the lush tropics of Penang in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Eng tells through the eyes of Lesley, who narrates alternating chapters, of her life and her marriage and focuses on the 1921 visit of Somerset Maugham, an old friend of her husband's Robert, and of her friend Ethel Proudfoot's 1910 (1911 in "real life") murder trial. That trial became the basis of Maugham's story "The Letter," which was later made into a movie starring Bette Davis. As it tells its stories of relationships, of marriages, and of the revolution in nearby China, The House of Doors focuses on fictions and truths, on what is real and what is altered by memory and circumstance. Eng's language elevates The House of Doors from what could have been an ordinary novel into a literary masterpiece. It deserves its place on the Booker short list and I recommend it highly.
This beautiful novel takes place in Penang and centers around novelist W. Somerset Maugham (Willie) when he stays with old friend Robert and his wife Lesley as he gathers stories for the book that will end up being The Casuarina Tree. The prose in this novel is breathtaking and the descriptions of Penang make the setting feel like a character. Most of the love stories in this book are underpinned with pain and I was left with a bittersweet ache at the end of my reading. I am still deciding if I want to read The Casuarina tree too or just enjoy the spell that The House of Doors has left on me. I am looking forward to reading more books by this author.
This is my third book from the Booker longlist this year and has been my favorite.
Thank you Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for this ARC in exchange for a review.
I received this book as a Netgalley Arc.
Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng has received or been short-listed for a number of prestigious international awards, including the Man Asian and the Man Booker Prizes. This novel, set in what were known as the Federated States of Malay in the 1900s to the late 1940s, is steeped in an “insider’s” understanding of landscape, history, culture, and the experience of colonization. Most of the story is told from the perspective of the British colonizers, through which seeps the oppression of the colonized, some of whom invest their lives in “performing” to pass muster with the overbearing ex-pat community. Although Penang, in Malay, is the principal setting, the story is bookended by the main characters’ time in South Africa, again suggesting the forces of racist imperialism at work in history and in everyday lives.
Eng’s story opens in the late 1940s in South Africa, where the widowed Lesley Hamlin receives a book written by Somerset Maugham some twenty years previously. She initially believes it was ordered by her deceased husband, an avid collector, for his collection, and is only now making its way to her from their previous home in Penang. British-born and Oxford-educated lawyer Robert Hamlin was a friend of the writer, having even shared rooms in their college days. Penang-born and decidedly lower middle-class Lesley—her father was a womanizing clerk, her mother, reputedly Eurasian, had to run a boarding house after his death, and Lesley herself was a teacher, though both musically and artistically talented. In a time when women could only hope to marry well to sustain themselves socially and financially, Lesley felt truly fortunate to meet the enigmatic Robert at an ex-pat soiree. More importantly, the older, sophisticated, upper-class Robert dismissed her background and married her within a few months. They had two sons in quick succession, but the second birth was so fraught that she was advised never to get pregnant again, which effectively exiled Robert from their shared bed. Although disappointed, Lesley set herself to playing the role of upper-class homemaker, household manager, and mother.
Her placid resignation is abruptly shattered when she learns a shocking truth about her husband’s proclivities. Betrayed and shaken to the core, her belief in both herself and her husband challenged, she becomes bitter and vengeful. In keeping with the behavioural scripts of the time, she refuses to shame him, even privately, by letting on to him that she knows. She finds other outlets to vent her emotions, notably, becoming involved, though peripherally, with the Chinese revolutionary movement led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who spent some time in Penang trying to organize the Malay states to join his overthrow of the Chinese governing class, and the class system itself. These actions in themselves are entirely unacceptable for a woman of her station, white, British, upper-class, and married. But she is also defiant, especially in light of an infamous rape and murder trial involving her best friend, Ethel Proudlock.
The revolutionary movement and the Proudlock trial are historical events, and Somerset Maugham, of course, is a real historical figure. “Willie,” as he is known among friends, enters the story in 1921, when he arrives with his secretary, Gerald Haxton, in Penang after a lengthy and depleting Asian tour, and stays with his Oxford friend Robert Hamlyn. Although married and a father, Maugham is a closeted homosexual and “Gerry” is his young, brash, and indiscreet lover. Like his wife whom he keeps in style at their London home, Gerald openly exploits Maugham for his status and money. After the Oscar Wilde trial, British homosexuals lived in fear of being exposed, publicly humiliated, financially ruined, and probably imprisoned. Maugham, despite his gender and financial advantages, is as trapped as Lesley Hamlin.
The “partners,” Robert and Gerry, are important to the back-and-forth story that unfolds, but Willie Maugham and Lesley Hamlin are the central figures. Eng tells the story largely in alternating points of view in chapters titled “Willie” and “Lesley,” and taking place mostly during the writer’s 1921 visit. Initially disliking her husband’s friend, and unwilling to disclose anything of herself to him, Lesley eventually finds the perfect way of getting something back of her lost self. She tells the writer about her involvement with the movement, the trial, her husband’s betrayal, and her own. At a low ebb in his own writing career, bankrupt and harassed by both wife and lover, Maugham writes up her stories in a thinly fictionalized form. This was the real-life collection, The Casuarina Tree, published in 1926. In Eng’s novel, many in the Penang ex-pat circle recognize themselves, including Robert Hamlyn.
After long fighting the notion of leaving Penang, her only home, even though Robert, who suffered terribly from the effects of being gassed in Belgium, wanted to move to South Africa, Lesley decides to accompany him. She reverts to her dutiful wife role, perhaps emotionally purged after her “confession,” which, although socially risky, achieved what she likely intended (but never articulates): to be written into history as her own agent. They spend the final sixteen years of his life there, not socially comfortable (for her at least) but amicably. The arrival of Maugham’s book sets the scene for the retrospective recounting of her story, and the beginning of a chapter that she had abruptly ended while testing the racist, imperialist, and patriarchal notions that shaped her life in the period she shared with the writer. Even then, she respected the boundaries while railing against them, just as Maugham did.
This is a complex story told in a tight, compact, flowing narrative, in less than 300 pages. Eng is nothing short of brilliant at capturing deep, intense emotion in sparse words. Quick to read, the beauty of the language and the character insight, as well as the critical historical context, stay with the reader long after it closes.
I’m behind on so many of my reviews and with the shortlist being announced tomorrow I realized I’ve read 3 this month from the long list & hadn’t talked about any of them!
So, since this was the most recent & I also was fortunate enough to talk with Twan this week for the @gaysreading podcast I thought I’d start here! Side note: This years list seems to be the most polarizing overall based on #bookstagram chatter, & although I’ll admit when I 1st saw the overall list I wasn’t particularly struck with a desire or need to read the whole thing (or even half tbh) I have to say I’ve really enjoyed the 6 I’ve read thus far.
This is his third book in what Twan terms his Malaysian trilogy, with writer William Somerset Maugham arriving at his long time friend Robert’s house with his lover in tow for an extended vacation of sorts. However, a writer is always soaking up whatever they can for a potential story, & here it becomes the true murder trial of Ethel Proudlock, a woman claiming the man she shot and killed was trying to rape her, which Maugham used as inspiration to later write his short story, ‘The Letter’ which Twan says works as a conversation piece and coda to this book.
Robert is married, but it’s his wife Lesley who quickly becomes the focus of the story, the past slowly revealing hidden secrets including the origin of the books title. I’m reluctant to tell too much more in terms of plot because one of the joys of the story to me were the secrets revealed as one of the questions the book ponders is, how well we actually know the ones we love. Lesley is a fascinating character, a feminist, & a woman ahead of her time living in a place with not only rigid moral codes but also as an outsider because of her race. She is forthright & I might add rather prickly and yet all of it feels understandable & justifiable with the circumstances around her. Eng’s writing is gorgeous, & elegant while never feeling stale or dry which in my experience can certainly be an attribute of a historical novel. I really loved this and would be thrilled to see it on the short list tomorrow. Thnx to @bloomsburypublishing for the advance copy.