The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng


This one will certainly be on my list of favorites for the year.

The story is set in 1910 and 1921 in Malaysia and is told in the style of Somerset Maugham’s stories from that location, and is written by a person whose ethnic group was on the receiving end of the racism of the British. While the casual racism and homophobia of the characters are apparent, they become fully human. The story lays bare that ugly aspect of their lives as well as telling other aspects of their lives.

The story is told in two voices, one, a British woman who was born and grew up in Penang. Lesley Hamlin tells her story in the first person. It begins in 1921 when an old friend of her husband Robert shows up for a visit. The other voice is the third person point of view focusing on that old friend, the famous author Somerset Maugham who arrives with Gerald, his secretary and lover.

The largest ethnic group in Malaysia are Straits Chinese who arrived from Southern China as early as the 14th century and are characterized by the mix of ancient Chinese culture and local cultures. The author is of Straits Chinese descent.


Lesley had always lived in Penang and spoke the local language Hokkien, unlike other British people. While she and Robert had a happy marriage in their early years, they have become distant. Their sons are away in school and Robert is in bad health which he believes would improve if they left the very humid climate. After Somerset Maugham (called Willie by friends) arrived, Lesley realized he and Gerald are lovers and she is initially repulsed at the thought.

Maugham’s story reveals his unpleasant marriage to a woman who was a good hostess and has expensive tastes. They have a young daughter, much loved by Maugham, but rarely seen. Willie loves Gerald and loves traveling with him, despite his philandering and gambling. The New York firm that handled his investment has been dissolved and just as he was hoping to stop writing, he finds he must keep at it. Willie prowls for stories to write.

The other historical character making an appearance is the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, raising money in 1910 in Penang. He visits Lesley and Robert and Lesley becomes a supporter of his work. Just at this time Lesley is told that Robert is having an affair and is especially shocked to find that his lover is a man he works with, a Chinese attorney. While doing editing work with the group supporting Sun Yat-sen, she grows close to a Straits Chinese doctor and they become lovers. That ended after Sun Yat-sen leaves for China and is joined by the doctor.

After the initial coldness between Lesley and Willie, Lesley decides to confide in him. She tells him about her love for Arthur, the doctor and about Robert’s affair. She also told him the story of her friend Ethel Proudlock, another historical figure from that time. Ethel had shot a man who she claimed had attacked her in her home while her husband was out. Lesley tells Willie she testified at the trial and was present when Ethel was found guilty. She appealed to the native governor and was denounced by everyone for lowering the British in the eyes of the natives and was forced to leave the island. Willie turned this into his short story “The Letter,” later was made into a movie with Bette Davis. The letter reveals that Ethel had had an affair with the man she shot.

The intrigues in the insular community end with a satisfying epilogue set 20 years later. I have not written about how mesmerizing the writing about this beautiful place is.

Tan Wang Eng, The House of Doors, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023, 306 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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