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the complete review - fiction
The House of Doors
Tan Twan Eng
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B+ : an interesting if not entirely successful mix
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The New Yorker
|Wall St. Journal
From the Reviews:
- "Tan Twan Eng has turned the fictional tables on Maugham by ferreting out several of the English writer’s skeletons, namely his wretched childhood, disastrous marriage and fraught relationship with his venal, promiscuous secretary Gerald Haxton, all in the context of his Malayan trip. (...) The House of Doors is expertly constructed, tightly plotted and richly atmospheric. The characters of Lesley, Robert, Ethel, Arthur, Sun and Gerald are beautifully delineated. Only Maugham himself remains something of a cipher. It is as though Tan, whose authorial voice is impersonal throughout, has felt similarly constrained in depicting his fellow author." - Michael Arditti, Financial Times
- "(A)n ambitious, elaborate fiction about fictions that beats back to the humid heyday of empire and instals the bestselling author as a flawed player in the drama. (...) It’s a book about memory, loss and cultural dissonance; a high-flown tragedy that sideslips through the decades and passes the narrative baton between Lesley and Maugham. (...) Tan writes as Maugham did, almost self-consciously so, in a descriptive high style that focuses on the tales people tell and how they look when they tell them. Smiles variously wither and blot. Residues of sadness stain faces. Casual expressions are draped. If Tan’s antiquated constructions call attention to themselves, I think that’s partly the point. Everyone in this drama is wearing an ill-fitting mask. Sooner or later they are liable to unhook and slip loose." - Xan Brooks, The Guardian
- "Tan’s storytelling is perfectly poised (.....) This is a fascinatingly layered novel, drawing upon a range of different modes and themes -- patriarchy, political turmoil, illicit love affairs and concealed sexuality -- with a courtroom drama (...) at the heart of it. (...) What is most wonderful about this book is the lush, luxuriant descriptions of Penang, a land of ‘cloying humidity’. (...) Through this deceptively lulling atmosphere, Tan has woven a superb, quietly complex tale of love, duty and betrayal." - Tom Williams, Literary Review
- "The House of Doors is an assemblage, a house of curiosities. Eng can write with lyrical generosity and beautiful tact (.....) But in this novel these moments seem to occur only when Eng provokes himself to some special point of intensity and concentration. They sit alongside plenty of slack and formulaic gesturing. (...) In the same vein, Eng’s narrative can take on a tone of blandly fictionalized biography. (...) The potential for a vertiginous examination of the instabilities and deceits of storytelling collapses too easily into novelized biography. The novel sends one back to the source texts." - James Wood, The New Yorker
- "(A)n elegant meditation on oppression, repression and loneliness. (...) This is, indeed, a novel of many doors -- perhaps a couple too many. (...) The lie of each relationship exposes its suffocating function as an instrument of establishment soft-power. (...) The House of Doors pays tribute to storytelling itself as a means not just of memorialising, but recreating." - Claire Allfree, The Telegraph
- "The narrative is recorded with an admirable lack of comment. Whatever critique of colonialism it offers is implicit. (...) But this is no pastiche: what elevates Eng’s book is the sheer beauty of his writing -- restrained, elegant, precise, every detail accurate, every line considered. Pain, loss and disappointment seep from every page, as do beauty and compassion. (...) The sentences here remind me of Shirley Hazzard, or perhaps James Salter. I can offer little higher praise." - Alice Jolly, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The House of Doors is set in three distinct time periods: a Prologue and Epilogue set in South Africa in 1947, and then chapters more or less alternating between 1910 and 1921, set in Penang, in what is now Malaysia.
The chapters also more or less alternate between ones narrated by Lesley Hamlyn and ones narrated in the third person but focused closely on writer W.Somerset Maugham.
The novel is based on actual history, as Maugham did visit the Federated Malay States in 1921 and then published a collection of six stories as The Casuarina Tree in 1926; one of those stories is 'The Letter' (later also adapted for stage and then screen), closely based on the actual 1911 trial of Ethel Proudlock for the murder of her lover.
In The House of Doors, Ethel is good friends with Lesley, and the chapters set in 1910 deal with the sensational murder trial -- as Tan shifts events by a year to accommodate other historical circumstances that he ties into his story, Sun Yat Sen's extended stay in Penang in that year.
(In a time when the treatment of pretty much anything factual has become so fast and loose, such a time-shift perhaps can't be expected to bother readers -- what's a year, here or there ? -- but does seem rather odd for a work that otherwise puts so much emphasis on its 'historical' trappings.)
Maugham comes to stay with Lesley and her husband Robert (and Maugham-readers may recall that in 'The Letter' the author doesn't use Ethel Proudlock's real name, but rather calls her 'Leslie Crosbie', and her husband 'Robert'; "The bloody cheek of the man", Robert Hamlyn would complain after the book came out).
Maugham is traveling (as he was, in fact) with his secretary, Gerald Haxton -- "about twenty years younger than Maugham, a slimmer and more handsome version of the writer" -- who is also Maugham's longtime lover.
Gerald is a more reckless, carefree sort, and much more adventurous than Maugham, spending more of his time out and about (and occasionally getting himself in trouble).
Maugham is married, but both he and wife Syrie -- who stays back in England as he travels about -- had different expectations and: "In the beginning it had satisfied them both, but their marriage had soured into a marriage of inconvenience".
Maugham's stay does not begin auspiciously: looking forward to: "a slothful, restorative stay here with Gerald, free from all cares", he receives a letter from his lawyer and learns that he's lost his entire fortune (which he had foolishly left entirely in the hands of a New York brokerage firm that had now gone under) -- money he had been counting on:
He had hoped that he would make enough from the investment so that he would never have to write for money again.
That hope has now been dashed, and it casts a pall over his stay.
But Lesley fills him in on the sensational murder and trial of a decade earlier, and he will eventually work that and some of his other Malay experiences into his fiction -- and make a good deal of money with it, even if: "the people he had met in the Straits Settlements were furious with the stories he had written about them; he had betrayed their trust".
Lesley wonders why people open up to Maugham (as they apparently do), asking him: "Why on earth would people reveal the shameful things they've done to you, a complete stranger ?" but eventually even she succumbs:
'I want to tell you a story, Willie,' I said.
Yes, I thought to myself.
Tell him your story.
Let him write it.
Let the whole world know.
Her story is, in part that of Ethel, as she follows the whole case closely and eventually also recounts the highlights of the trial, but there are also personal bits.
At the time she feared that her husband was having an affair -- and her husband then came to worry that she was having an affair with Sun Yat Sen; each, as it turns out, has the right idea, about their spouse straying, but is off in a more fundamental way.
And Lesley does get to know Sun Yat Sen, and is intrigued by his efforts to effect change in China, to which he has devoted his life.
The dynamics between colonizer and colonized are central to the novel, manifest in a variety of ways, but most obviously in the Proudlock trial.
As Lesley's lover notes: "No European woman in Malaya has ever been on trial for murder" -- and he also knows that:
'Well, even if they find her guilty,' he said, 'they'll fashion some loophole for her to slip out of the noose.
They'll say ... oh, she had amnesia, or that she blacked out temporarily; or they'll say that she was hysterical, she didn't know what she was doing.
They'd never hang a white woman.
When Ethel is found guilty and sentenced to die she shocks the white community by withdrawing her official appeal of the verdict and instead asking the Sultan to pardon her.
Robert is outraged:
'Ethel Proudlock has damaged our prestige among the natives.
"How can we allow an Asiatic potentate to exercise the power of life and death over a European, an Englishwoman ?"'
Ethel is guilty -- but won't admit that she was having an affair with the man she killed, something Lesley knows and which she implores her friend to reveal to save herself.
As it turns out, Lesley doesn't know the whole story, learning the full truth only later.
But The House of Doors is full of shamed silence, especially about relationships that are considered improper -- in stark contrast to, for example, Sun Yat Sen's openness about having more than one wife, which Lesley finds outrageous.
In a novel packed with arguably too many different competing stories the 'House of Doors' of the title is only introduced quite late.
It becomes what Lesley calls her sanctuary, too -- though one almost wishes Tan had made more of it, as it is a striking, clever concept.
In the Epilogue, Lesley sums up:
True, I had betrayed my friend, but in doing so I had prevented her from being erased from history.
I refuse to feel guilty.
Because of Willie's story, Ethel Proudlock will never be forgotten and, in a smaller way, neither will I.
The 'House of Doors' is also an attempt at holding onto a bit of history -- including traditions and old ways of life being preserved, even as in some cases, such as the shame about homosexuality or adultery (or the idea of polygamy), it seems to cause more harm than good.
The Malaysia of the times is presented well, and Tan manages to imbue the whole thing with enough of a Maughamesque feel, but the story does feel drawn in too may directions at too many times, without enough being made of parts of it; there's more than enough happening here to fill a much longer novel.
Maugham is nicely realized here, but the overlay of both the Proudlock case and Sun Yat Sen, neither of which truly get enough attention, as well as the time-differences -- Maugham's scenes set in 1921, the others in 1910 -- leave the novel just a bit too loose, and bit at too loose ends (even with the looking-back-a-quarter-of-a-century-later Prologue and Epilogue bookends pressing firmly against it from each side ...).
There's certainly a great deal here to enjoy, but the novel as a whole ultimately feels somewhat wan.
- M.A.Orthofer, 19 October 2023
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The House of Doors:
W. Somerset Maugham:
Tan Twan Eng:
Other books by Tan Twan Eng under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng was born in 1972.
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© 2023 the complete review
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