Tan Twan Eng’s third novel, which was longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, is set in the early 1920s, when the British writer William Somerset Maugham and his secretary (and lover) Gerald Haxton visit the coastal province of Penang, Malaysia, as the guests of Lesley and Robert Hamlyn.
Part of Penang’s European elite, Lesley and Robert live a comfortable, privileged life although their marriage is no longer as intimate as it once was and Lesley suspects Robert of having an affair. Over the course of his visit, Lesley shares her concerns with “Willie” and mentions that she was once close to the revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen, who spent time fundraising in Penang. Lesley was also a friend of Ethel Proudlock, whose murder trial in Kuala Lumpur sent shock waves through the British expat population. These details provided the seeds for several of Maugham’s future works, most notably “The Letter,” the final story in his 1926 collection The Casuarina Tree.
The House of Doors alternates between Lesley’s and Willie’s perspectives as Lesley unburdens herself to Willie, disclosing her fears of her husband’s infidelity and her involvement in Sun’s movement. Willie draws inspiration for his stories from Lesley and other locals, while hoping to dig himself out of a financial hole and worrying that Gerald will leave him now that money is flowing less freely.
Tan’s choice to tell the story from the view of the colonizing class highlights his characters’ limitations and blind spots. Many of the characters are living double lives; Willie hides his homosexuality, and Lesley too keeps an intimate relationship secret. Perhaps this is why, for a novel about desire and revolutionary politics, the tone of The House of Doors is surprisingly cool: The moral complexities of a colonial society are hidden behind a veneer of restraint and manners. Tan’s eye for detail and understated storytelling bring a subtle edge to this thoughtfully written, atypical historical novel that searches for the emotional truth behind the facts.