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ALL WOMEN, ALL WALKS OF LIFE, ALL NATIONALITIES

... stories, adventures and all things related to life in Singapore and Southeast Asia by AWA members

AWA Book Review

By Mandakini Arora

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng, 2023


If you are a Tan Twan Eng fan, his third novel will remind you why. If this is your introduction to his writing, you are in for a treat. If you do not know the book’s historical and literary antecedents but enjoy a compelling story by a masterful storyteller, this book is for you.


Interested in the history of British Malaya and in Somerset Maugham’s life and writing, particularly his short story “The Letter,” I was hooked by The House of Doors before even opening it. Tan skillfully knits together history and fiction. He interweaves real events—a 1911 Kuala Lumpur murder trial, Sun Yat-sen’s Penang sojourn in 1910, Maugham’s travels in Malaya in the early 1920s, and his fictionalization of the murder trial in “The Letter”—with the life of a fictional Englishwoman, Lesley Hamlyn, in colonial Penang. Maugham played with the facts of the real-life trial and Tan plays also with Maugham’s story.


The novel is bookended by Lesley, in 1947, examining a book anonymously mailed to her South African home from Penang—a first edition of The Casuarina Tree, Maugham’s collected Malayan stories. Between the bookends, we read about her married life in Penang, where she also spent her childhood. When Sun worked there garnering support for a revolution in China, Lesley was drawn into his orbit. In the process, she visited the eponymous house of the novel’s title, an unoccupied house in which one of Sun’s party workers stored his collection of wooden doors, some salvaged from shophouses and temples.


The narrative alternates between 1910 and 1921, with Lesley’s story told in the first person and “Willie” Maugham’s in the third. Maugham is staying with the Hamlyns at Cassowary House in 1921, accompanied by his male secretary and lover. Lesley opens up to Maugham, talking about her work with Sun, and about her married friend, Ethel Proudlock, tried and imprisoned for killing her lover. She also reveals fault lines in her own marriage.


Stop, don’t tell him! I could not help thinking as I read. Maugham infamously wrote Malayan acquaintances into his fiction as recognizable characters. With Lesley, he behaves honorably, though. Besides, the wheel comes full circle. Maugham himself is a character in a story. Tan writes organically about the writer’s life—a sad childhood, a speech impediment, an unhappy marriage as a cover for homosexual relationships, and wellsprings for his enormously successful books and plays.


Tan powerfully evokes a sense of place, using words inventively—a blackened kettle broods on a stove; twilight foxes the margins of the sky; trees luxuriate in the wind.


The story would have been strong even without the Sun Yat–sen strand. Speaking at The Arts House in Singapore in July 2023, Tan said that the Proudlock case and Maugham in Malaya were not enough to sustain a novel, hence the addition. I am not sure I agree, but whose book is it anyway? And what would happen to the novel’s title without the addition?


Historically well researched without being heavy handed, clever but never contrived The House of Doors is a keeper.

 


​Mandakini co-chairs the AWA Writers’ Group, which meets on the second and fourth Thursday morning of every month. She is a historian who enjoys reading and writing stories and browsing in secondhand bookstores. Read her book reviews here and on Instagram: @travelling_bookmark.

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AWA members are women who come from many countries and life experiences but they all have one thing in common — they have chosen to live in Singapore. Some members are new to Singapore,  while some have been here a long time or have returned to Singapore after time away. Our magazine - written and curated by AWA members - focuses on a diverse range of topics including wellness and family, travel tips, cultural events and information, and other helpful tips around navigating and experiencing life in Singapore to it's fullest. 

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