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The House of Doors

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A character rich historical fiction set in 1920s colonial Malaysia, interweaving the lives of writer W. Somerset Maugham and Lesley, an unhappily Englishwoman who was born and raised in Malaysia, and the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen.

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THE HOUSE OF DOORS by Tan Twan Eng is an elegant, layered tale that takes us on a captivating journey through early 20th-century Malaysia, drawing inspiration from W. Somerset Maugham's visit to Penang.

The story is told from the viewpoints of two key characters: Lesley Hamlyn, a female British colonial resident in Penang, and “Willie” Somerset Maugham, the famous British writer who pays a visit with his male secretary and lover. What struck me as intriguing is Tan's deliberate choice to narrate the story from the British colonial perspective, with no insight from the Malaysian and Chinese characters. It left me frustrated and longing for a richer tapestry of voices, particularly from the lovers, servants, and activists on the periphery of Eng’s narrative.

The novel also feels burdened by a surplus of subplots, including an artist's financial and creative dilemmas, a courtroom drama, clandestine affairs, and an oddly fitted-in visit by Sun Yat-sen, adding a touch of political intrigue. I was also surprised that a novel about multiple secret affairs touching on race, gender, sexuality, and power felt so bloodless and lacked the passionate and dramatic flair one might expect. Even Maugham's own fiction is more scandalous!

Nevertheless, the character of Willie Maugham is a standout and I thought Eng succeeded in capturing Maugham’s own elegant and witty writing style and quirky fictional persona. Overall, Eng's vivid descriptions of the Malaysian and South African landscapes were beautiful highlights and I enjoyed his subtle portrayal of the complicated nature of marriage, betrayal and friendship in the shadow of the colonial empire.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA for the eARC.

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Longlisted for the Booker Prize, The House of Doors is exquisitely written with beautiful and evocative prose. The writing is as lush as the landscape portrayed in the novel.

The House of Doors is a fictional story based on historical events. I did find the story slow to reveal itself but then it grabbed my rapt attention and I concurrently wanted to devour yet savor this story.

The story begins with Lesley Hamlyn. She is currently living in South Africa but spent most of her life in Penang Malaysia. She receives a mysterious book which causes her to reflect on her previous life in Penang.
Lesley was at first happily married and became the mother of two sons, time passes, and Lesley is unhappily married to Robert. They get news that they are going to be visited by Robert's old friend "Willie" Sommerset Maugham and his secretary Gerald.

Maugham and Lesley begin a friendship and Lesley's story unfolds as she confides in Maugham.

There are many layered storylines in this book that are so expertly woven together. And with that my TBR piles have grown exponentially as I now need to add Eng's previous works along with several more by W. Sommerset Maugham himself.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy of this exquisite novel.

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By the author of The Gift of Rain comes another historical fiction novel set in Penang, Malaysia. The prior novel was set in 1939 and this one moves back to 1921 when the British are still in control of the country and English diplomat’s wives occupy themselves with teas and cards.
Lesley Hamlyn is bored by the sameness of these activities and is thrilled when Somerset (Willie) Maugham, a friend of her husband’s comes to stay with them. Lesley who does not share the us/them feelings of most of the English towards the indigenous people, has grown up in Malaysia and becomes fascinated by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, a Chinese revolutionary who comes to Penang to gather support for his cause.
While not a page turner, the storyline does none-the-less compel the reader to continue on. The translation yields some unfamiliar words as does the description of food, animals, and fauna, but not distracting enough to make one not want to learn more about the relationship of the various characters and their individual demons.

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I really enjoyed the timeless story with the beautifully written historical backdrop. A book that touched my heart and was hard to put down. I love it when a book makes me want to read about historical events yet still has a great story to it!

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This was my first read by this author. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of the writing. But soon I learned that when the story was from the perspective of one of the characters, the writing was not quite as beautiful as from another character. That was intriguing. The historical nature was also interesting. I didn’t know much about Malaya. I also wasn’t familiar with the Chinese revolution, so it was interesting reading that part of the story too. The characters were not necessarily people I would want to know, but it was still good reading about them. There are some beautiful scenery descriptions. Thank you NetGalley for the advanced readers copy.

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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.

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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.

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Before we get started, a quick personal bias. Tan Twan Eng is a Chinese Malaysian author who has been on my list for years, given that I am Malay and will support any Malaysian. I endeavor to be impartial, but for better or worse, please take my notes with a grain of salt.

This historical fiction novel set in Penang, Malaysia (then Malaya) switches between two narrators, Lesley Hamlyn (in a first-person POV) and Willie Somerset Maugham (in a third-person POV). Alternating between their conversations in 1921, and flashbacks in Lesley’s POV to 1910, the story covers themes of gender, sexuality, race, fidelity, and nationalism. A note I haven’t seen in other reviews that I find important is that these themes are handled—at least in the first half of the text—with extreme crassness when delivered by some of the European protagonists. I understand a desire by Eng to be authentic to the racist, homophobic, and white supremacist attitudes of the time, but reading phrases like “bloody Ch**ks” in 2023 was extremely jarring. The themes became more nuanced as the story went on, as we see how each of the characters bend and break rules with regards to propriety of race, gender, and sexuality; but I also felt that we as readers really had to work to move away from actively racist and homophobic language that riddled the first half.

As far as construction of the book, Eng is a master of imagery and detail. While getting into the start of the novel, I found myself occasionally listing when the descriptions went on for pages at a time, but I as the novel progressed, the imagery was something I looked forward to being immersed in, and I got really excited when buildings and locations in Kuala Lumpur were mentioned that I have been to myself (shout out to the Selangor Club and nearby retired government court buildings!).

One final note on the linguistic choices of the novel. Each of the protagonists, Willie and Lesley, are white, and while Lesley was raised in Malaya, Willie is a visitor. Yet in chapters from both perspectives, there is frequent use of the Malay language folded into inner dialogue, or what could be described as omniscient detail, with no explanation. As someone who speaks Malay, this was not a problem for me, but it did take me out of the story at times to wonder, “How would Willie know this word? Why is he not using the English equivalent?” Again, a bid for authenticity makes sense to ground us in the location of Penang, but it felt a bit misdirected by attributing the language to non-native speakers.

Overall, this book was a beautiful tale of desire, obligation, and what we owe ourselves versus others. The second half of the book in my opinion is far stronger than the first half, and the mechanism of Lesley telling Willie her story works to absorb the reader in what feels like secret-telling with gorgeous imagery throughout. Combined with some of the more unsavory takes and phrasings, I give this book 3.5 ⭐, rounded to 3 on Goodreads

*Thank you again to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

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Tan Twan Eng's The House of Doors is beautifully composed. The story is tight. The characters are engaging. This is a wonderfully classic example of award-winning historical fiction.

And yet, it's too good of an example, because this novel eerily echoes so many others that were very notable thirty, forty, or more years ago. Certainly styles can come around again, but I don't personally see the overwrought but beautiful historical dramas making a comeback in exactly the same fashion. There's a very specific style here that feels tremendously out of date, particularly the details of wealthy British citizens facing trials in foreign locations. Yet, the fact that the novel is in part about an author who himself wrote these kinds of stories perhaps offers a reasonable and clever explanation for why the author embraced this style and nailed it so perfectly.

Don't get me wrong, The House of Doors is a great novel and I see it as a great example of what a sweeping historical novel can be. It just really doesn't do anything imaginative or original with the genre. As such, I highly recommend it to anyone who's still looking for more historical literature of ol'.

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"From the bestselling author of The Garden of Evening Mists, a spellbinding novel about love and betrayal, colonialism and revolution, storytelling and redemption.

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."

Oh yes, I love historical fiction with authors, hello Somerset Maugham!

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The House of Doors was a beautifully written, but ultimately unsatisfying book. Eng did a great job of describing the time and place. But both main characters, Willie (Somerset Maugham) and Lesley, the wife of his old school chum that he’s visiting in Penang, came across as flat.
Told from both perspectives, the plot envisions Maugham’s visit in 1921. He has just discovered that a poor investment decision has left him pretty much broke. He’s desperate to write his next book and is searching for a topic. Lesley tells him the story of her friend, who was convicted of murdering a man with whom she was having an affair. The fact that it’s told by Lesley to Willie reduces some of the impact, being told as a secondhand account.
At one point, Lesley mentions to Willie that all his stories seem to be about unhappy marriages. Certainly, because of the stigma of divorce, couples stayed married regardless of their happiness and often sought out affairs instead. This plays out in this book as well. You would think with all the various love affairs and high emotions, the story would have been livelier. But sad to say, it came across as dry and lifeless to me.
The story tackles the homophobia of the day. Lesley and Willie have an interesting conversation about the norm of homosexuals marrying to hide their tendencies, despite what that means for their wives.
The book does fulfill one of my desires of historical fiction, which is to teach me something I didn’t know. In this case, it’s Sun Yat-sen’s rebellion against the Qing dynasty.
I have not read Maugham’s The Casaurina Tree. I’m not sure if reading it would have deepened my appreciation for this book.
My thanks to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for an advance copy of this book.

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4.5 stars
The House of Doors begins and ends on a farm in South Africa in 1947 but most of it takes place in Malaysia more than 25 years earlier. The story opens with Lesley Hamlyn receiving a package containing a book by famous author W. Somerset Maugham which prompts her to recall a time in 1921 when Maugham (known as Willie) and his secretary, Gerald, visited her and her late husband, Robert, for 2 weeks at their home on the Straits Settlement of Penang.

Lesley is meeting him for the first time as Maugham and Robert are old school friends who haven't seen each other in many years. Maugham has a wife back in London that he doesn't love and has been travelling in Asia for a lengthy period of time with Gerald, who is also his lover, gathering stories for what will be his next book. While in Penang, Maugham learns that he has lost his fortune because of a bad investment and feels immense pressure to write several stories suitable for publication to alleviate his financial problems.

During that visit in 1921, Maugham learns that Lesley was close to Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and probes for information as he suspects the two had an affair - a story which might make good fiction. As the two become closer, Lesley decides to share a story about her life with Maugham that she has never told anyone else - a story that takes place 11 years earlier about a man she fell in love with and the murder trial of an Englishwoman in Kuala Lumpur. The narration alternates between the two time periods and between narrators - Lesley in the first person and Maugham in the third person in both time periods.

Longlisted for the Booker Prize, The House of Doors is a beautifully-written, mesmerizing read. The novel is based on real events - a reimagining of the travels that led Maugham to writing The Casuarina Tree (a collection of short stories set in the Federated Malay States), the activities of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in Malaysia and the sensational trial of Ethel Proudlock who was charged with murdering a man who she claimed had attempted to rape her. A delicious blend of fact and fiction (like the stories that Maugham himself wrote) - a story about storytelling and the line between fiction and truth or one's perception of the truth

Tan Twan Eng has written an atmospheric historic novel with evocative descriptions that transport readers to the colonial world of Penang early in the 20th century in a slowly revealed story that touches on many issues including colonialism, adultery, betrayal, and sexuality. A fascinating look at human relationships, a compelling plot, and memorable characters - I was lost in the story and the beautiful prose and couldn't put it down.

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

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Recounting the two weeks that author William Somerset Maugham visited Malaysia in 1921, Tan Twan Eng's third novel (each of which have been nominated for the prize) is a sepia-toned rendering of colonialism, infidelity, and the power of fiction.

The story starts in 1940s South Africa where Lesley Hamlyn lives on a remote farm. One day she receives a copy of one of Maugham's book which triggers a memory from his visit to her home in Penang decades earlier. This in turn compels Lesley to tell Maugham of events that occurred about a decade prior to his visit, as a story-within-a-story.

There's much to be said about Eng's ability to craft a scene, especially the vivid settings and descriptions of nature. Though the novel as a whole seems to fall into many of the tropes of historical fiction, he does excel in rendering a location or crafting a rich environment within which his characters reside.

The characters, unfortunately, feel a bit hollow, or like playthings for the author to dictate his story through; perhaps because Maugham is a real person and thus there's only so much creative liberty Eng can take with him—or maybe because the emphasis on playing intertextually with Maugham's works overshadowed Eng's own themes and explorations. Ironically, the one character who felt the most intriguing, Ethel, is the one we only hear about occasionally and mostly at the end of the novel.

I haven't read Maugham before which definitely doesn't feel like a prerequisite for picking up this book. I don't think my reading suffered because of that lack of context; perhaps I didn't enjoy it as much simply because this type of historical fiction, one that leans into melodrama and has a cinematic feel, isn't what I gravitate to in fiction. But I can see this hitting the spot for a lot of readers, especially the right kind of historical fiction fans.

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**many thanks to @bloomsburypublishing and @netgalley for an e-arc of The House of Doors in exchange for an honest review. This is released here in Canada October 17.**
This story centres around the real writer W. Somerset Maugham (Willie) as he is called in this novel around the time he travels to Penang (today part of Malaysia) in 1921 with his lover Gerald Hoxton. Willie has just learned he has lost money in the market, is struggling in deciding whether to end his marriage and generally has made some poor life decisions. He stays with a fictionalized couple Robert and Leslie Hamlyn, in Penang in his actual lifetime, and it is this stay that inspired the short story “The Letter” as it appears in one of his book The Casuarina Tree.
I was worried this would be over literary for this simple reader. (it is Longlisted for the Booker this year after all). No need to fear as I found this very readable, and I actually where I finished thinking it was “fine”, after a couple days realize I quite liked it. There are so many layers to this story - a love story, a trial, an important time in Chinese history is explored and hidden secrets. It certainly feels well researched, with writing that is graceful, poised and I would go so far as to say exquisite. This story has definitely lingered in my mind.

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I’m very sorry to say I didn’t connect with the prose on any level, and by “I’m very sorry” I really do mean sincere sorrow, because my expression of regret here is not throat-clearing preamble to a bad review, even if it is now getting to the ‘bad review’ part, where I’m about to say the language in this book is floofy nonsense, where seventeen words are used instead of seven, or four, and where the romanticization of every gesture would be tolerable if only it weren’t expressed in the most superficially adequate way possible, and why can’t I just enjoy this illusion of good writing and good story? What is the matter with me? Why can’t I just relax and enjoy it? Argshdjckehsh

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Dear Tan Twan Eng,

Can we have a heart-to-heart? You’re a phenomenal writer. THE HOUSE OF DOORS is a superbly-crafted tale that weaves in so many strands of both real and fictional colonial Malaya: Somerset (“Willie”) Maugham’s time there, Ethel Proudcock’s murder trial, the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen’s brief stay in Penang, and the fictional Lesley and Robert Hamlyn’s personal dramas that tie these all together. My attention was rapt throughout the story, from the lush and evocative details of the setting to the well-paced plot to the keen character studies.

THE HOUSE OF DOORS is the kind of book that I’d normally call a triumph, but I have to ask, a triumph for whom?

The novel focuses almost exclusively on white characters in an Asian setting; the two Asian men who feature in the story (even someone as legendary and interesting as Sun Yat Sen!) merely serve as one-dimensional foils to the main characters. Only the white characters are written as having rich interiority, complex psychological motivations, or full social lives.

If you felt inspired by Willie Maugham and wanted to tell a story about him, fine. Artists must follow the creative impulse. But why not also feature Asian characters who are every bit as robust and well-developed? Also, how did it escape your notice that the Asian women in your story are either long-suffering maids, mistresses, or wives to be cheated on? What a slap in the face.

By elevating the British colonists’ dramas while erasing the lives of the locals, it felt like you were using the gorgeous, sensual backdrop of Malaysia to tell white peoples’ stories. It felt like you were mining the setting (your homeland, I’ll admit, and not mine) for exotic details on the backs of the nameless, faceless Asian population. It felt like a re-colonization via literature.

If you wanted to tell the story of the colonizer (which has been told countless times), I would hope that you’d do so in a fresh way. Not all literature has to be radical, but if we’re going to adopt the colonizer’s mindset and give voice to her thoughts, then I’d argue that it should be done subversively. (Maybe ask R.F. Kuang for tips?)

Sure, you made it clear that your main characters are overtly racist and/or homophobic, but not in a way that implicates the reader or societal power structures. The reader can leave the story thinking “Wow, glad I’m not homophobic like Lesley or racist like Gerald” and never question the whole enterprise of imperialism. In fact, the reader leaves with stereotypes reinforced: that white people’s stories are the ones worth telling, even in Southeast Asia.

It's not your fault that writing white (especially famous white) characters gives this book more gravitas and selling power in the Western world. And it’s not your fault that the Booker Prize judges chose only this book for the longlist from all of Asia (Chetna Maroo’s little gem also gives Asian rep, but she and the characters are situated in the UK).

Your two other novels (both also longlisted or shortlisted for the Booker!) do feature Asian characters, and I don’t think there should be guardrails on what authors can and cannot write about. But I can only tell you, as an Asian woman, how this particular novel of yours made me feel. The best (albeit flawed) analogy I can come up with is that it’s like if you were a Black man – one of the few Black writers deemed “literary enough” by the Booker – and wrote GONE WITH THE WIND (without its problematic racism). An incredible work of literature? Yes. A betrayal of sorts? Also yes.

Like you, I am of Chinese descent. Like you, I have a professional degree, which has implications for how we’ve conformed to what’s required of us to succeed in this world. Like you, my natural tendency is to be strait-laced and easily co-opted by the powers that be. Ten years ago, I suspect I would not have read this novel with the same eye. I suspect I would have unconditionally loved it.

As you write your next novel over the next ten years, my hope is that you will step outside the academy, so to speak (which may be difficult since you were a judge for the 2023 International Booker Prize and rub elbows in those circles). Don’t write for anyone else: reviewers, critics, prize judges, or amateur bookstagrammers. Your novels are written with meticulous craft. I would love to see you get messy. Get radical. Loosen the tie. Question the authorities, our education, our history.

And if you don’t, well, I’m sure you’ll keep writing best-selling, critically acclaimed novels, so there is no real reason to listen to me other than I think you could write something dynamite, something so explosive that it will rock readers to their core and knock the wind out of them. I can’t wait to see it.

Your sister in solidarity,

P.S. Thank you @bloomsburybooksus for the ARC!

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I haven’t read Tan Twan Eng before, so I can’t really say if The House of Doors is typical of his work, but honestly, I just found it dull. Combining a few real life historical events — an in-its-day shocking murder trial, the in-exile revolutionary efforts of China’s Sun Yat Sen, Somerset Maugham’s world travels in search of subject matter for his next bestseller — and overlaying each strand with melodramatic love stories, I wasn’t moved or entertained by any of it. I can see that others really loved this, and it has caught the attention of literary juries, so I have no problem admitting that my experience was not typical; just not for me.

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A story about family, love and storytelling. The different timelines didn’t work well in my opinion and I did not feel a connection to the characters.

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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.

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