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The House of Doors

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Member Reviews

This was a slow burner for me. I love when a place feels like a character in the story as well as the people, and I definitely got a sense of Penang in the era. I knew nothing of Maugham and have never read his works, but that didn't diminish from the story being told and in all I thought it was an interesting way to frame the story.

There were some really creative ideas - and there was a degree of complexity in bringing the inspirations of the story together which I appreciated. I didn't know the gender of the author while reading, and actually assumed it was a woman. I thought he did a pretty remarkable job with Lesley, the main character, and the strongest in the book by far.

The ending came together beautifully for me, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention how much I enjoyed learning where the title of the book came from. A solid book all around ... not mind blowing in any way.

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Lesley Hamlyn lives with her husband Robert, and her two children in Penang, their relationship can be projected as a normal marriage but there are secrets between them. The couple receives as a guest Willie, a friend of Robert. Willie, or William Somerset Maugham, the English writer. After spending some time there, Leslye confides with him about the trial of her best friend Ethel Proudlock accused of murder, and also about Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary of the Taiping Rebellion.
The novel moves into different timelines from 1921 to 1947 set in Penang and South Africa, it is well written and the language used is according to the time and place. It addresses themes such as love affairs, hidden homosexuality, and race and it includes real events.
I think the author managed to cover different themes and real people and events and link them perfectly in this work of fiction.
If you know about William Somerset Maugham's works, you could find the novel fascinating and probably will connect more, for those who do not have background knowledge about his work like me, it can turn into a good introduction to the life and work of the author especially to The Letter, part of The Casuarina Tree, a collection of short stories which was written during his stay in Malay.

Thank you Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for the e-ArC.

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House of Doors was a great novel for the historical fiction reader. It really draws you into the world and you get wrapped up in the two main paths of the plot.

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A beautifully-woven story blending a uniquely diverse and fascinating set of cultures and backgrounds. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in these characters' worlds.

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Tan Twan Eng's House of Doors has been named to the Booker Prize Longlist recently, so I was eager to read an ARC. My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an opportunity to read this novel before its official release.

The House of Doors is an infinity mirror held up to an endless repeating interplay between fiction and nonfiction, history and chance. The novel is a mediation on how narrative can swing from objective truth to perception. The novel jumps between several time periods, but its main focus is a visit from the author W Somerset Maugham to Penang, Malaysia, in 1921 where he and his secretary-partner Gerald Haxton stay with his old friends Lesley and Robert Hamlyn. During the visit, Lesley shares with Maugham an intimate retelling of her deepest experiences in Penang in 1911, a story that incorporates a number of elements including a murder trial, several extramarital affairs, and the political work of Sun Yat Sen, who worked from Penang in the period leading up to the 1911 Chinese revolution. Maugham eventually uses elements of these stories in a later book of short stories “The Casuarina Tree.”

I found this a compelling, fascinating read. The intertwined narrative voices and time periods made the plot continually interesting and I enjoyed the way it dipped in and out of biographical details and fictional detail. The author reminds us that fiction writers are magpies and collect the material that works for their vision, often discarding elements that are less important to their structure and plot.

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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.

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"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.

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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.

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In 1947 South Africa, Lesley Hamlyn is living alone on a farm when she receives a book: a collection of short stories by the writer W. Somerset Maugham. She knew Willie once; he was a friend of her husband’s and once stayed with them for a couple of weeks when they lived in Malaysia. But who could have sent this book? Dipping back into her memories of Willie’s visit, Lesley remembers the tension of that time: it overlapped with the murder trial of her best friend, Ethel Proudlock, who was accused of shooting a man in self-defence following an attempted rape. And Lesley also remembers what she told Willie, which inspired one of his stories.

This is a novel rich in description, set in the British colonial upper class, largely in Malaysia. Tan Twan Eng’s sentences are works of art, and despite not much happening in this story, the events are peeled back slowly, and with great suspense. The British characters on whom the novel is focused are hypocritical in how they engage with their transplanted homes, and it’s a subtle, cutting critique of the behaviour of the white settlers. I don’t think it was mind-blowing, but it was beautifully written, and I wouldn’t be upset to see it on the Booker shortlist.

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If lush, evocative language is the most important factor in your enjoyment of a book, then you'll love The House of Doors. The writing is vivid and beautiful. But if you need to care about the characters and feel some emotion toward them, positive or negative, you may be disappointed. For a book in which passion plays a key role, there's a real lack of it in both the first-person narration by the protagonist Lesley and the third-person narration that gets inside the head of W. Somerset Maugham. For some reason the book reminded me of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which also left me cold (though I may have been too young when I read it to appreciate its nuances; if anything, this has spurred me to reread it, and to also reread Maugham's Of Human Bondage, which I loved). For me, The House of Doors was a gorgeously wrapped gift that, when opened, had nothing but tissue paper inside.

Thank you, NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA, for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Another outstanding book by the author of The Gift of Rain. In heartbreakingly beautiful prose, Eng recreates British colonial Penang of the 1920’s, an island off the coast of Malaya, and a personal and private chapter of the life of W.. Somerset Maugham.

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3 stars. A decent and fast-enough read, and I was interested enough throughout my time with this book. At the end of the day, however, I don't think it breaks any new ground. Not a deal-breaker at all for me, but as I was getting to the closing pages, I realized, not much had really happened in the book, nor of lasting interest. I'd still recommend the book to various friends and library patrons, but with the above comments as well.

Many thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher for a free digital ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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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.

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This novel opened several doors to me. I became acquainted with W. Somerset Maugham and Sun Yat Sen through the pages here. I learned, or was reminded, of how unfair life was for women in the early 1900’s, Men could move outside their marriages with no penalty, but women could be destroyed with those actions. It was an interesting, and often compelling, read. I feel it is not a book for every reader, yet I cannot identify what makes me feel this way. I will give it four stars, and see how often I do introduce it to our readers.

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The setting: Penang, 1921 [and some back and forth]. "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 [lover] Gerald,...Maugham, one of the great novelists of his day,..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."

And so it begins, BUT, this is much, much more! Based on real events, this book covers race, gender, sexuality, power under the British empire, colonial life in Malaya, China/revolution--to start.

At the outset, so beautiful and atmospheric, I couldn't help highlighting descriptive phrases that I loved.

For example:
"morning is decanting its ight:
"depilated basilica, with just a narrow fringe of sparse grey hair above his ears"
"vampiric smile"
"smile starched onto my face" [another smile described!]
I could go on and on.

I'm not sure how I would have approached this but the first almost half of the book seems to me mostly descriptive, atmospheric, and laying background to [especially] to the lives of Lesley and Maugham. Then it seemed to switch gears and pick up on plot--the situation and trial of Ethel Proudlock [also based on a true story]. There was somewhat of a disconnect in the rhythm--but I didnt care all that much as I was truly engaged.

Not giving anything away, but I loved the story of Lesley and Arthur.

A glossary would have been most helpful for all the Malay words [and others].

Highly recommend. 4.5

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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