Truth and lies in a house of many doors
Drawing inspiration from W Somerset Maugham, Tan Twan Eng’s third novel blends reality and imagination to produce a timeless story
W Somerset Maugham’s short story The Letter was published in 1926. Set in colonial Malaya (now Malaysia) it is a tale of betrayal, morality, and the consequences of one’s actions.
The story was inspired by a real-life event. During his travels in Kuala Lumpur, Maugham heard a story about a woman named Ethel Proudlock, the wife of a local schoolmaster, who had shot a man thought to be her lover six times, claiming that he attempted to rape her, only for a letter to surface that suggested a more complex and potentially sinister relationship between them.
Maugham was known for drawing inspiration from his own experiences and observations. He often used these real-life incidents as starting points for his fiction, adding his own insights and interpretations to create compelling narratives.
“Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more telling,” he wrote. “To know that a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses. It is to touch this chord that some authors have done everything they could to give you the impression that they are telling the plain truth.”
Drawing inspiration from Maugham, Tan Twan Eng’s third novel, The House of Doors, blends reality and imagination to produce a timeless, complex, evocative story based on real events. In 1921, Maugham and his long-term secretary and lover, Gerald Haxton, stayed with married British couple Lesley and Robert Hamlyn on the island of Penang. There he learns stories from them that would provide the fodder for his collection of short fiction The Casuarina Tree.
Born in Penang, Eng has always been a fan of Maugham’s work. “When I started writing The House of Doors I wanted to explore why he came to Malaya and how he came to write The Letter,” he said in an interview. “But I also wanted to write about Lesley, who is the main character in the novel. I had a picture in my mind of woman constrained by what society expected of her.” Another character who features in the story is Sun Yat-sen, who plotted the overthrow of China’s Qing dynasty from the island and set up the country’s first republican government.
Lesley and Robert are pillars of the Penang social scene, having entertained a range of notable guests including “stage actors, MPs, members of the aristocracy, writers, opera singers”. Lesley is initially distant towards Willie, whose estranged wife, Syrie, has remained in London, partly due to his overt infatuation with Haxton. But as her frostiness gradually melts away, she opens up to Maugham, recounting the tale of Proudlock, who was Lesley’s closest confidante.
Set against scenes of revelry that bring to mind James Fox’s White Mischief (1982), in which colonialists in Kenya lived lives of luxury and decadence, Lesley directs a key question at Maugham about his choice of literary themes. “You say you write about love, Willie, yet so many of your stories are about unhappy marriages and adulterous affairs.”
In addition to the central tale of the Proudlock case and Maugham’s secret affair with Haxton, we learn that Lesley’s own marriage is devoid of passion. After Robert’s nightly visits to her bedroom diminish and ultimately cease, she discovers his infidelity, not with another woman, but with his Chinese associate, Peter Ong.
Because of the societal implications of divorce and its potential impact on her sons, Lesley chooses not to confront Robert. Instead, she embarks on her own affair with a young, attractive doctor, Arthur Loh, an ardent supporter of Sun Yat-sen who visits the island to raise funds for his cause. The title of the novel refers to the refuge Lesley finds, a “sanctuary” where she might imagine becoming “a different woman, living a different life”.
In the prologue, written in 1947 from Lesley’s point of view, she is living on a farm called Doornfontein in the Karoo.
“People around here had expected me to pack up and return to Penang after I buried Robert, she writes. “There were days when I asked myself why I didn’t do it. But — sail home to what? And to whom? Everyone I had known in Malaya was either dead or had disappeared into different lands and distant lives. And then the war had broken out all over the world and the Japanese had invaded Malaya, so I had remained here, a daub of paint worked by time’s paintbrush into this vast eternal landscape.”
Eng’s debut novel, The Gift of Rain, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, and The Garden of Evening Mists won the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012 and the 2013 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2012. Tightly plotted and richly atmospheric, The House of Doors, longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, may be his finest work yet.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.