Cover Image: The House of Doors

The House of Doors

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Not a terrible book but a slow read. The historical setting and topic was interesting. Overall I just couldn't get into the book.

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I was very excited to read The House of Doors, being Malaysian (though now living the diaspora). Tan did not disappoint in any way. I was profoundly moved; the setting of the novel, in high colonial era Penang, evoked a sense of lost history for me, being so far from Malaysia, and culturally divorced from all that home invokes, but I also suffered for the characters and felt the grief of their romantic losses.

This novel is a romantic anti-romance, the kind of romantic novel that mimics tragic, realistic romance in life, with all the attendant unhappy endings and disappoints, guilt and regret, nostalgia and memory that romance actually delivers.

There are two intertwined stories here, that of Lesley Hamlyn, a middle aged British woman living in Penang with her lawyer husband, and “Willie” Somerset Maugham, the novelist who comes to stay with them for a short holiday (which turns into a research and writing expedition). They are products of their British Colonial culture; this is the 1920s, the peak of British rule in Malaya, and they represent the elite class that enjoys all Asia has to offer.

Lesley and Willie form an unusual friendship, and in doing so, the stories of their respective romances is unveiled and threatens both of them and their place in society. Love brings both of them pain and escape; traps them and offers them a way out.

Tan tackles tough subjects: queerness, interracial romance, sexuality and sex, gendered expectations — all things the British were (are?) notorious for suppressing at home and abroad. Tan does this with great skill; the writing is gorgeous. A particular ocean scene utterly devastated me; I was as submerged as the characters in it.

This is a book I will need for my personal library.

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I’ve wanted to read Tan Twan Eng’s works for years, ever since a few bookish friends of mine read both his previous award-winning novels and kept recommending them to me. While I do have both of those novels on my TBR (as well as physical copies sitting on my shelf), I keep falling into the “too many books, too little time” trap and of course, in the end, I wasn’t able to get to them (someday though, I am determined that I will get to all the books I’ve been meaning to get to!). Anyway, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise then that when I heard Tan would have a new book out this year, I jumped at the chance to grab a copy, and while I was hoping to have read this one last month before it was actually released, getting to it now is better late than never.

One of the things I’ve heard that Tan is known for is the beautiful, lyrical prose that he utilizes to tell his stories. While yes, there was definitely quite a bit of beautiful writing in this newest novel, it actually didn’t permeate the entire story, at least it didn’t feel so to me. I felt that some parts — especially those related to the Proudlock murder trial — were written in a simpler, more straightforward style that seemed to be a little bit at odds with the more descriptive and elegant prose in other parts. But then I later read in an article that with the trial segments, Tan was trying to hew as close to the real life unfolding of the event as possible, in which case, the more restrained, straightforward writing made sense.

This is actually one of those books where there technically wasn’t much action in terms of plot (a large part of the book was the main protagonist Lesley Hamlyn recounting a story to famous author W. Somerset Maugham) — yet at the same time, there seemed to be several threads running through the book that felt necessary to keep track of.

Essentially, the story is a reimagining of Maugham’s trip to Penang in the 1920s and what he learns while there becoming the inspiration for one of his later books, the short story collection entitled The Casuarina Tree (which was published in 1926). While I’m familiar with Maugham as an author, since I’ve read a few of his previous works (my favorite of the ones I’ve read is The Painted Veil), I knew very little about his personal life, so I was curious how much of the way Tan depicted Maugham was fact versus fiction — which of course took me down the rabbit hole of reading up on Maugham after finishing the novel (it was fascinating to see how Tan incorporated the real life details about Maugham into the story). Also, after finishing this novel, I immediately wanted to read The Casuarina Tree to see how Maugham actually wrote the story of the Proudlock murder and trail (which itself was based on real life events) and how much of it jived with Tan’s version (I know, I’m a nerd with this kind of stuff) — though unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy yet.

One of the other threads that Tan wove into the book was a backstory involving the famous Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat Sen (who really had visited Penang at the time, but in a different year). There were also other aspects of Chinese history that Tan incorporated into the story, such as the Taiping Rebellion and the fall of the Qing dynasty. Given the dearth of English language novels in existence that talk about such lesser known aspects of Chinese history (and actually get the facts straight to boot), I definitely appreciated what Tan did here. Even though this particular story arc was secondary (the main arc was Maugham’s visit and the story Lesley told him), it was, in my opinion, the best written part of the book (and certainly my favorite out of the several threads throughout the story).

Overall, this was quite an ambitious novel with multiple threads that made the story a tad convoluted in places, but I still enjoyed it immensely. As I mentioned earlier, I definitely need to track down a copy of The Casuarina Tree so I can study the parallels — after that, I might just dig up my copies of Tan’s previous 2 novels and get started on them (time permitting, of course).

Received ARC from Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley.

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This is the kind of book you fall into. It starts slow, and you aren't sure where the author is going, and that is okay, because you want to go along for the ride. This is a story told in alternating voices of Somerset Maugham and Lesley Hamlin, the wife of one of Somerset Maugham's oldest friends. The story starts and ends in Africa, but the majority of the story takes place in Penang, Malay. Maugham is facing financial ruin and looking for new ideas to write about, while Lesley is caught in a marriage more of convenience than romantic love. Lesley tells her story to Maugham knowing he might write about her and her husband, which could ruin them both. She also tells the story of her friend who was arrested for murder. Neither story is what you expect, and you need to read this to the end to see how it turns out. This book is literature at its finest, well written with a depth of character development, and amazing descriptions of place; Malay comes alive.

My thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for an advance copy. My opinion is my own.

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Definitely an interesting premise and I loved that the novel was based on real life events. There were aspects that really stood out to me, especially the women trapped in marriages that they thought were based on mutual love but in fact they were just beards for their homosexual husbands who needed to appear heterosexual during that time period. Disappointingly, I just never really got hooked on the book--never was drawn into the characters or the story, so while it was interesting intellectually, it never got me a the emotional level.

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A well told story of family, love, secrets, and pain. It is best to take this novel in slowly to better appreciate the vivid descriptions of all that is on offer here.

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Thanks to Netgalley for this book. I wanted to give it five stars, but I found the plodding pace of the story made it impossible to do so. It wasn’t until about halfway into the story that I actually started to care about the people. Then, I found the characters compelling and couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next. I did find shifting POVs confusing—sometimes told from first-person by Leslie, but third-person for Willie. That said, the writing style is impressive, and there is some beautiful language as well as vivid descriptions that stood out to me:

“The sun slipped into a hidden seam in the clouds, and the world faded to monochrome.”
“...her face collapsed. It was like watching a heavy flank of ice calving from an iceberg into the sea…”
“The sea was emerald and turquoise, chipped with a million white scratches.”
“Money’s the sixth sense. If you don’t have it, you can't make…the most of the other five.”
“Blackwood signboards perched above door lintels, their carved, gold-leafed Chinese calligraphy glowing in the shadows like candle flame glimpsed through clouds of smoke.”
“Clouds were pulling across the sea, trailing long tassels of rain.”
Flowers, having fallen from their stems “were already browning at the edges. Seared by the unforgiving air, he thought. While we are living, the air sustains us, but the very instant we stop breathing, that same air immediately sinks its teeth into us. What keeps us alive will also, in the end, consume us.”
“Dragonflies with stained-glass wings stitched invisible threads in the air.”
“The air felt as if it had been painted on his skin with a hot, dripping brush.”
“We set out early one morning, when the air smelled of the rested earth and the day was still just a glowing filament stretched taut across the horizon.”

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At first I thought it was going to be a DNF for me because the beginning is so slow. If you can just muster through the first quarter it becomes so much better after that. It's an extremely interesting book and I loved the setting of it. It was very different from what I've read before and it was nice to broaden my horizon's with this.

There are two pov's as well as two different timelines as this book goes on. Normally this might be confusing, but I found it very easy to figure out what was going on. The chapter heads also make it very clear who is talking and what time period you're in so I don't think this will be an issue for any reader.

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good plot twist mixed with drama!

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A well written historical novel covering the life of Somerset Maugham, a friend of Robert and Lesley, owners of a home in Penang in the 1920s. Maugham's turbulent life along with Lesley's deteriorating marriage and her involvement with Dr. Sun Yat Sen provides Maugham with perhaps inspiration for his writing. Historical fiction at its best, well done!

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This beautifully-written novel was inspired by real events, the life of Somerset Maugham and the trial of Ethel Proudlock. Told in the first person between Willie and Lesley’s POVs, it is a mesmerizing story. It tackles race and gender, marriage, friendship and colonialism—all woven together in a satisfying package. It started a little slowly for me as it took me a minute to orient myself in the cultures of the book, but once I found my footing, I loved exploring the rich world Eng created. The characters are fantastic and I loved immersing myself in their lives.

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With masterful storytelling, Tan Twan Eng paints a unique picture of life in early 20th century Penang.

Seeing life through the eyes of Lesley Hamlyn, we learn that Penang under British rule is equal parts enchanting and constricting. Amid a landscape of mountains and ocean, British and Malay culture collide. Social distinctions are based on race just as much as influence. A call for political reform across the sea in China takes center stage with the arrival of revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen. As Lesley’s dissatisfaction with her marriage becomes harder to ignore, the desire for freedom and liberation pushes her to seek fulfillment amid the revolution effort.

Willie Somerset Maugham, a writer who ventures to Penang to with his lover Gerald, is trapped in a marriage of convenience. His stories are notorious for exposing the secrets of his peers, and he finds fuel for his next book while vacationing with Lesley and her husband. Willie sees the world with an author’s keenly discerning eye, but his experiences reveal the hardships of self-expression in a heteronormative society.

Reading this novel was like walking through a portal into a world that’s is equal parts fact and fiction. Based on factual events, the novel paints history in such vibrant color that reality begins to merge with imagination. Just as Willie Somerset Maugham incorporated true events into his fictional stories, Eng has succeeded in creating a novel that feels both ethereal and genuine.

Love does not consider race or gender. By entering The House of Doors we come to see that every one of us deserves a sanctuary, and oftentimes that safe haven is a lover’s embrace.

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I thought I was going to love the story and although I found it kind of interesting I felt as if I was waiting for something to happen that never happened. I also thought Leslie seemed apathetic about everything her friend what was happening in the country ET see I still think some people will like this book because I didn’t not like it and I did want to see what ultimately happened to Willy but it just wasn’t the type of book I thought it was. I thought due to the status of their marriage and Willys extracurricular habits that they would be more happening I did like the writing style of the author and I do recommend this book for those who like literary fiction books set in foreign countries as this one is mostly set in Africa but it was in the book I would read again. I want to thank Berkeley publishing and Net Galley for my free arc copy please forgive any mistakes as I am blind and dictate my review.

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This book starts briefly in South Africa but the rest is a flashback to life in Penang, Malaysia in the early part of the 20th century. The beginning threw me because I was waiting for the story to switch to South Africa but that doesn't happen again until the very end. I learned a lot about the history of Penang and of the lifestyle of the Europeans who lived in the area at the time. There was lots of scandal and intrigue. Tan Twan Eng paints a beautiful picture of the area with his words. I've been to Malaysia but now I want to specifically go visit Penang.

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Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an advance copy!

The House of Doors interested me because of the setting — post WWI, in the Federated Malay Dtstes under British colonial rule, coinciding with the collapse of imperial rule in China. I think this book was less about the history of the area and more a slice of life and study of relationships and marriage that coincides with major events.

One of the reasons why I didn’t connect as much with this story as I wanted to was that the characters were flat. Both our narrators serve as a witness to another story — Lesley Hamlyn to Ethel Proudlock and the events surrounding the murder trial, and William Somerset Maugham to Lesley’s witness of the trial. And while I liked what this does regarding the exploration of relationships and sexuality in this book, the characters themselves don’t really stand out as people.

The prose is gorgeous, vivid and imaginative, and Penang springs up around the reader. I’m going to be honest — I didn’t know much about the history of this area, nor of Sun Yat Sen, but this book definitely sparked an interest for me to read up on that history, as well as Somerset Maugham.

I liked this, and I notice it’s a Booker Prize Longlist. I think this is the kind of book you have to take slow and steady.

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A beautiful, fascinating novel about a place and time period I knew little about. I have read a few of Maugham's novels and loved them, so that's what drew me. But this is really Lesley's story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Loved the structure and the way it tied together at the end. I still am thinking about it.

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I quite liked this even though I thought his previous book was even better. The author writes historical fiction about Malaysia that is different from other books even if they take place in the same time period.

This book tells the story of a woman that grew up in Malaysia during colonial rule by the British. W. Somerset Maugham comes to visit her husband and she ends up telling her story, which he used as a basis for a book of short stories. So the story happens in the near past, but there is also this previous narrative. I may be making a mess of the explanation. Maugham is one of my favorite historical personages, so this had extra appeal to me.

The writing is beautiful. The fact that this wasn't picked for the Booker Shortlist seems slightly odd when you compare it to the other books that did make it, but that's on the judges and should not be any reflection on this lovely book.

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It’s difficult to summarize the novel’s plot in just a sentence or two as its strength lies in the multilayered storylines that are distinct yet parallel and compliment one another with satisfying conclusions. A beautifully written, nicely paced piece of historical literary fiction deserving of being included on the 2023 Booker Prize longlist.

Netgalley and the publisher provided this book for review consideration, but all opinions are my own.

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The House of Doors is beautifully written, atmospheric, and thought-provoking. Eng's examination of a gay relationship in a time when they had to remain hidden is enlightening, particularly if you're interested in W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge). The combination of complex marital and extramarital relationships, a smattering of Asian sociopolitical issues, and its strong sense of place makes for an absorbing read, The one aspect of House of Doors that surprised and disappointed me is the author's decision to focus on three white characters, without giving us the perspective of Malaysians. Despite that fact, I still recommend The House of Doors to readers seeking evocative and literary historical fiction.

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A beautifully crafted work of historical fiction, based on the lives of real people, including author William Somerset Maugham. A meditation on love in all its forms, romantic, familial, friendship and love of country and ideals, this is a book to transport you to another time and place. It’s easy to see why this book is in consideration for the Booker Prize.

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Just now, I finally put this book down. I had no choice. I'd finished it. As usual, when I find a book particularly moving and exquisitely written, I feel like I can't do it justice. Tan Twan Eng brings us to 1921 Penang in Malaysia where Leslie Hamlyn, a British woman born and raised in Penang lives with her husband Robert, an ex pat British Barrister. Robert is friends with Somerset Maugham (Willie) and he is coming to visit the Hamlyns at their home, Cassowary House. Maugham brings with him his lover, nominally referred to as his secretary, Gerald Paxton. The Hamlyn's two sons are in boarding school in England. Their visitors have both been ill. It has been many years since Robert and Willie roomed together in London for eight months. Since then each has married and had children and Robert has come home from WWI with severe lung damage, made worse in the hot, damp Malaysian climate. We already know from an introductory segment that the Hamlyns later moved to South Africa for Robert's health and that after fifteen years, he died there, Leslie stayed on instead of returning to Penang.

While visiting, Willie receives a letter from his New York lawyer announcing he lost all of his money in a risky investment. Objectively, when Willis is focussed on the Gauguin's he will have to sell, it can be hard to feel super sympathetic, but he is frightened, concerned he'll now have to stop traveling and be with his wife and that he might lose Gerald. He's playing things close to the vest and desperately writing every day to get an out book of short stories as quickly as possible. And one night, when neither of them can sleep, Leslie starts to share and then continues to share a story with Willie of her life in 1911, when her marriage was troubled and her best friend killed a man. This was also the period when a Chinese man, Sun Yat-Sen, and others formed a Revolutionary Alliance to overthrow the last dynasty in China. Sun Yat-Sen had already engaged in several unsuccessful, bloody attempts to overthrow the Emporer. He was in Penang to raise money for the cause and because he was thrown out of every other country where he spent time due to his political work and efforts to fund and recruit for his cause. The Hamlyns get to know him and through him, Leslie does some translation work for the cause. She starts to get more familiar with the Chinese community.

So, this is the backdrop for Leslie's tales for Willie, that go deeply into what happened with her marriage to Robert. This is the period she translated pamphlets for the Chinese revolutionary community and made friends with a man who owned a house where he stored Chinese doors he rescued from demolition. Leslie shares with Willie details of what she knows about Ethel Proudlock's murder of a man she says tried to rape her. Leslie describers her part in Ethel's trial where the punishment could well be hanging. This book is a story of relationships, but in an interesting way, examining many permutations that remind us each relationship is unique. It examines and reminds us of the safe way homosexual men from Great Britain, and their wives, functioned in society. Gerald, who never married, could never go back to Great Britain because he had been reported and faced prosecution and imprisonment if he returned. Willie believed his wife was behind this. Willie's wife gains prestige from being associated with a famous and wealthy writer and they have a daughter together.

Meanwhile, Leslie recounts to Willie stories of various married people who were committing adultery, including with same and opposite sex lovers, and the ways this shaped their marriages. Somehow, over the course of this novel, we enjoy an immersive experience into the higher society of the British and Chinese communities. We learn a little about the people who serve the wealthy. We find out about the year leading up to the Chinese revolution of 1912. We learn a lot about Somerset Maugham as a human being who spent most of his time traveling the world with his lover. I found myself watching an old black and white tv interview of him when he was around 80 and could definitely recognize the affable and erudite man in the book, not a snob but proud of his work and aware of his fame. Eng definitely does his personality and humanity justice.

We are transported to the place and time and Leslie's world, knowing that her story may well be in the next group of short stories Willie publishes. And, in fact, his short story, "The Letter" in a collection called "The Casuarina Tree." retells the murder story. This was only a fraction of what Leslie shared. This is a love story too, a very moving one that makes you root for a couple and yearn for them to be able to be together. It is a story about how people make relationships that are not love-based function, where no matter what everyone knows, the actors play their roles as they are meant to. And even though the rules seemed decidedly different from contemporary times, it feels like we could be on the brink culturally and politically of shutting closet doors on gay people if they want jobs and safety and making interracial relationships harder, far more forbidden. Reading this, I was struck by the fact the experiences of the characters have a contemporary relevance.

This is an amazing, engrossing story, beautifully written, giving us an understanding of the several cultures occupying Malaysia in the early 20th century that we enjoy and do not want to leave. The characters and what drives them are all interesting as well. Highly, highly recommend.

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