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The House of Doors

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The writing feels very "traditional," which appropriately sets the tone and voice. I wasn't personally into all the narrative distance and wasn't feeling pulled into the world because of it. That said, I can see it going over well with audiences, as it the prose is lovely. I stopped at 5%.

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the ARC.

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This is a story within a story within a story. The book is about the two weeks that Somerset Maugham spent in Penang (Malaysia) after WWI, around 1920, in the home of a British attorney and his wife. He hears a story about a murder of a white man, committed by a white woman who is rumored to have Eurasian blood in her. Maugham eventually writes up the tale, which will become one of his most famous stories, then a play, and eventually two different Hollywood movies, the last starring Bette Davis.

I loved learning about Malaysia during 1910 and 1920, and particularly about the Straits Chinese. The book provided important background for anyone interested in the history and culture of SE Asia.

Without the author explicitly writing anything, the reader can’t help but question the whole set up of colonialism. What did the Brits think they were doing, assuming such a privileged position? The novel encourages a reader to marvel at their hubris and superior attitude towards people who had lived in the area for centuries before them.

Maugham’s homosexuality was another interesting theme. The author clearly illustrates the double bind gays found themselves in after the Oscar Wilde case. The author makes us question Edwardian morals (which have certainly not disappeared today). Why is adultery considered a heinous crime when committed by a woman, yet condoned when committed by a man? Can a wife commit adultery if her husband is a closet gay? Why is interracial adultery more scandalous than same-culture adultery?

The novel is book-ended by scenes set in South Africa, using a Z plot. The plot jumps around quite a bit between 1910, 1920 and sometime much later. I’m not sure why the author chose to do this, except perhaps to give us a sense of closure at the end. I wonder if he was showing us that Brits could move between colonies and still maintain their elite lifestyle.

Just as Maugham kept the names of many real people in his works, so does the author here. This adds a sense of authenticity, but also makes the reader wonder whether we’re reading factionalized history here, or true fiction. (Not that it really matters…)

At first, the book had some clumsy (IMHO) aspects (telling rather than showing) much like you find in poorer-quality historical fiction, as opposed to a literary work. That surprised me, because I have loved the author’s work in the past, and he is widely awarded for his literary style. But I stopped noticing these things quickly, once the author got his stride and jumped into his plot. Then I couldn’t put the book down. It gave me a lot to think about for days afterwards.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance review copy of this book.

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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.

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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

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The first 1/4 or 1/3 of this book was very slow, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish it, but those slow beginnings lay a lot of good groundwork for what comes next, which was a fascinating and poignant exploration of what makes a marriage, the intricate relationships between colonized and colonizer, and how people find and come to terms with love in the strangest places. I thought this novel would be about Maugham, but he’s mainly a framing device for the real story, which concerns Lesley, her friend, Ethel, who is on trial for murder, and her relationship with Sun Yat Sen and his revolution. Once you get past the slow beginning, the book becomes full of emotional urgency and the uncertainty of whether the story we’re being told is the “true story,” as it is a book within a book, colored by the unreliable narration of both the narrator and the author. A gorgeous, nuanced, and heartbreaking novel.

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n 1921, Lesley Hamlyn and her retired lawyer husband are living in Penang, Malaysia and frequently host dignitaries. Among them is Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the Chinese revolutionary. Another is the acclaimed writer “Willie” Somerset Maugham. Willie is convinced there are many untold stories behind Lesley’s calm demeanor, fuel for future stories. We learn about the imperfect Hamlyn marriage and the murder trial of one of Lesley’s close friends, based on a true story. The discrete story threads–the murder plot, Dr. Sen’s visits to Malaysia, the Hamlyns’ infidelities–fall short of gelling neatly. Yet Eng’s writing is as magical as ever.

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I have read all three of the author's books and enjoyed them all. I enjoyed this one the most. Not a lot happens, but the descriptions and the characters are fascinating. Strongly recommended.

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4.5, rounded up.

Oddly, before this I had read very little of Maugham's work - although I have read about half of the output of his nephew, Robin - who I absolutely love. I'd also not read Eng's first two novels but suspect this - like the previous ones - will be in contention this year for the Booker Prize. This is exquisitely fine storytelling, and using some basic facts about Maugham's visit to Penang in 1921, an infamous murder that occurred there in 1911, and Sun Yet Sun's sojourn there in 1910, Eng weaves an enthralling tale that really keeps one rivetted.

Just before reading this, since it centers around Maugham's composition of the short story (and subsequent stage adaptation of) The Letter, I not only read both of those, but also rewatched the 1940 Bette Davis film adaptation - and would strongly suggest doing at least one of those before attempting to read this. Also, do a Google photo search on each of the particulars to familiarize oneself with what everybody looks like (it enhances one's enjoyment!) - and listen to this (which is a recurring musical motif throughout):

What prevented me from a full 5-star rating is that I got lost a few times within the various timelines (which also includes a prologue and epilogue set in 1947) and keeping the wealth of characters straight (thank g-d for the Kindle search feature!). Also, it would have been generous to provide a glossary of Malaysian terms - many of which were NOT deciphered by Kindle! And there were some passages on the political happenings that, while necessary - sorry - I found a bit boring.

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Told across alternating time periods in 20th century Penang, "The House of Doors" looks into what appears to be an banal couple, Robert and Leslie Hamlyn, who live in the Straits Settlements. Robert is an esteemed barrister who met his wife in the UK before the two moved to Malaysia, but it's Lesley who the bulk of the novel focuses on. At first glance, she appears to be a stern housewife-turned-socialite, but it's only after the arrival of her husband's friend, author Willie Somerset Maugham, in 1921 that we begin to learn more about her. It's thanks to Willie's interest in her past and her history with Sun Yat Sen, the leader of China's Kuomintang, that she reveals more about herself and the events that unraveled a decade earlier.

I really wanted to love this novel as there's some fascinating aspects of it I had yet to encounter before. The setting and time period is unusual, and it was an eye-opening look to what life was like in southeast Asia during the early 1900's, especially given the number of foreigners that moved into countries like Malaysia the impact these populations had on society as whole. While I was familiar with some of the events and political situations going on in China at the time, it was fascinating to see how those impacted the neighboring countries and citizens. This is my first encounter with Tan Twan Eng's works as well, and I found him to be a masterful writer - the prose is descriptive and well-structured, and this is the only time I've encountered "tintinnabulation" used within a novel.

However, I struggled with this novel as a whole given how slow the pacing was, even as someone who generally prefers character-driven novels over plot-driven ones. While I found some of these characters to be intriguing, such as Lesley and Willie, there is a a lot of build up needed to start unraveling their complexities and histories and while some of the topics brought up were intriguing (i.e. homosexuality in 20th century Asia), there wasn't much done with them. While this isn't personally a novel I'd recommend, I'd still love to explore more works by this author.

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Yet another beautifully written book by Tan Twan Eng. When I read his first book, The Gift of Rain, I was struck by his lyrical style of writing. It flowed like an exquisite piece of music. In this book, Eng recreates the evocative period of the 1920s, when many British citizens were living in exotic ports of call, either as government officials, businessmen, or as second generation Brits who were raised there. Our heroine, Lesley, is in fact a second generation FMA who has lived in Malaya for most of her life. Her husband invites his old friend, Somerset Maugham to visit them in Penang.. Always looking to pirate his next great story from someone, Willie convinces Lesley to tell her story from several years prior wherein she may have had an affair with Sun Yet Sen, who was at the time actively seeking financial support for the revolution on the mainland. And also, her involvement with a woman who committed "the crime of the century" in 1910, which Maugham parlayed into one of his most successful stories.

Eng skillfully intertwines the life of Malay of the post WWI era with historical figures and events, and fictional characters that are so well drawn it's hard to believe they didn't really exist. His vivid descriptions of the homes and neighborhoods of Penang leave the reader feeling as though they are a part of this community and time. Sometimes as you read, you can feel a gentle breeze lift the native humidity- for just a moment. This a book to be read slowly, and savored long after it is finished.

Thanks to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for this ARC opportunity.

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An Englishwoman in Malaysia reveals secrets to visiting author "Willie" Somerset Maugham, who uses real people's lives as inspiration.

This absorbing blend of literature and history draws on Maugham's famous short story "The Letter" as well as the revolutionary aspirations of Sun Yat-Sen. The stigma of homosexuality and interracial relationships at the time is also explored in an insightful portrait of a woman who realizes her marriage is a facade. Imagery of the island setting and the titular House of Doors add rich layers to the story.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

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I loved the buildup of Lesley's story in this book. What seemed like it was going somewhere in the plot with one character, in the end I loved how it moved onto another character and their relationship with Penang, others, and most of all, themselves. It had me wondering what was going to happen, and I loved how the plot showed Lesley's hardships and how she endured as a woman during the time she lived in. I'm usually not someone who reads historical fiction, but I certainly will read other Tan Twan Eng's other books after reading this one.

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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.

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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.

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Gorgeous prose that takes you straight to 1920s Malaysia, a captivating story, and a satisfying end.

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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.

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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
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!!!”


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!

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