House of Doors

House of Doors

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Gabi's Review

Set in the beautifully evoked British Colonial island of Penang the narration is shared by the character writer William Somerset Maugham and Lesley Hamley, wife of a barrister who was a friend of Maughams in his university days. The prologue introduces us to post war Lesley living then in South Africa and the recipient of a book by Maugham -  The Casuarina Tree, Lesley’s own story about her life in Penang.

We meet Maugham in 1921 close to bankruptcy, staying with the Hamleys in Penang accompanied by his lover and secretary Gerald Haxton. Maugham, his ear ever primed for stories, becomes Lesley’s confidante. He is desperately in need of a new book to finance his travels with Gerald. Lesley confides not only her own story but that of her friend Ethel Proudlock’s murder trial. The Proudlock scandal later becomes the subject of Maugham’s The Letter.

Lesley’s embrace of social activism is brought on by her realisation that homosexual men of the era entered sham marriages to protect themselves from a punitive system. The House of Doors itself is a wonderful colonial era edifice in which she seeks her liberation and search for intimacy with a Chinese lover.

Tan Twan Eng is himself a lawyer and acclaimed writer born in Penang and the courtroom drama and social history are very much his story to tell. Historical fact and fiction really intertwine everywhere in this novel and particularly with the real life character of Sun Yat-Sen leader of an intriguing Chinese rebellion. It is all here history, folklore, social and political entanglements, painting a convincing portrait of both time and place. If you enjoyed his work Garden of the Evening Mists, I am confident this book won’t disappoint.

 

Publishers Reviews

 It is 1921 and at Cassowary House in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Robert Hamlyn is a well-to-do lawyer and his steely wife Lesley a society hostess. Their lives are invigorated when Willie, an old friend of Robert's, comes to stay.Willie Somerset Maugham is one of the greatest writers of his day. But he is beleaguered by an unhappy marriage, ill-health and business interests that have gone badly awry. He is also struggling to write.

 

The more Lesley's friendship with Willie grows, the more clearly she see him as he is - a man who has no choice but to mask his true self.As Willie prepares to leave and face his demons, Lesley confides secrets of her own, including how she came to know the charismatic Dr Sun Yat Sen, a revolutionary fighting to overthrow the imperial dynasty of China.

 

And more scandalous still, she reveals her connection to the case of an Englishwoman charged with murder in the Kuala Lumpur courts - a tragedy drawn from fact, and worthy of fiction.From Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Tan Twan Eng, The House of Doors is a masterful novel of public morality and private truth a century ago. Based on real events it is a drama of love and betrayal under the shadow of Empire.