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The House of Doors

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The Booker judges described The House of Doors as ‘historical fiction at its finest’. Were you inspired by any other writers of historical fiction while writing the book? When I finished The House of Doors yesterday, I stayed motionless and silent for half an hour, wondering what had just happened. This novel has an old-fashioned charm; it reads as if it were a classic written in the first half of the 20th century. The sense of time and place is evoked in an amazing way, I mean not only the clothes, interiors, furniture, food, nature, landscapes but also the characters' opinions and beliefs. I like the fact that the author led me astray plotwise on several occasions: for example, in the beginning, I thought this was going to be a sort of remake of Out of Africa in a Malayan setting, even the farm in Africa was mentioned, but it all went in a completely, completely different direction. When the World’s Most Famous Writer Visits a Hotbed of Amorous Intrigue, by James Wood, The New Yorker, November 6, 2023.

It’s based on 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.

The House of Doors is partly a biographical novel, based on a few facts of William Somerset Maughm's life. It depicts the creative process, how literature and reality intersect, and the clash between mundane everyday life and the writer's creativity. An interesting coincidence: I was thinking how Colm Tóibín’s route in his biography of Thomas Mann, The Magician, was different, and in the evening, I read in The Guardian his enthusiastic opinion on this book: The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng is fascinating, engrossing and has given me infinite pleasure. I couldn't agree more. 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….

Tan Twan Eng writes pleasing evocative novels but sometimes I think they are a little too subdued for my taste. Think languid rather than electrifying. I begin with the main characters. I work out what is it that they are seeking. I always know the ending, although getting there is another matter entirely. With this novel, I even knew what the concluding sentence would be; every other word and sentence preceding it was directed, like an arrow fired from a bow, towards that final sentence. Because I was writing about Maugham writing his stories, I felt I had to follow his lead. But I found that restrictive and it just did not work for me. Eventually I abandoned that idea, and then the writing just opened up. Within these layers of the storyline are many different strands. There is the intrigue of the murder trial, insight into Maugham’s life and Sun Yat Sen’s, and the lives of Europeans, Straits Chinese, Malays and others in Penang at this time. The writing is excellent, although I occasionally found descriptive passages a little overdone and convoluted, and it held my interest completely throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the only reason it’s not a 5 star read for me is due to very minor issues such as this.The way Tan Twan Eng deftly weaves in some elements of Maugham's style so that it almost sounds like a pastiche and adds some elements from Maugham's books, some of the realia, is just extraordinary. Since I've started The Casuarina Tree, a collection of Maugham's short stories set mostly in Malaysia, which inspired The House of Doors, I appreciate Tan Twan Eng's talent even more. Not just talent. How much work, time and research must have gone into this novel and, at the same time, it seems so effortless, so understated, so smooth, so subtle. I have not read Maugham’s The Casaurina Tree. I’m not sure if reading it would have deepened my appreciation for this book. The House of Doors is a 2023 historical novel by Tan Twan Eng, published by Bloomsbury Publishing. The novel, set in the 1920s British colony of the Federated Malay States, tells the stories of the local residents and visitors, including a fictionalized version of William Somerset Maugham. 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 …… 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!!!”

This, for me, was a beautiful piece of historical fiction. I've read several Maugham books and stories over the years and for some reason it never occurred to me that they were loosely based on people he'd met. This book, in a way, is an homage to Maugham. It involves stories of love and devotion - both real and fictional. Tan Twen Eng manages to evoke a feeling of the last century and its attitudes to homosexuality, adultery and male dominance. The House of Doors is based on true events, and is partly drawn from a Malaysian murder case in 1911. What was it about the story that captivated you, and made you want to base a novel around it?The novel was longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize and listed among notable fiction works in 2023 by The Washington Post and The Financial Times. Despite the differences between them Maugham finds himself drawn to Lesley and she finally tells him not only her story but that of a friend whose affair spiralled out of control with devastating consequences.

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