cover image The House of Doors

The House of Doors

Tan Twan Eng. Bloomsbury, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-63973-193-0

Tan (The Garden of Evening Mists) explores the power of storytelling in this intoxicating outing. At Cassowary House in Penang, Malaya, in 1921, Lesley Hamlyn prepares to receive “Willie” Somerset Maugham, the famed English writer and friend of her husband, Robert. Increasingly drawn to Willie—who is desperate for new material for a novel to stave off bankruptcy—Lesley gradually unburdens herself to the author, unearthing a trove of long-buried secrets ranging from the personal to the political. Tan seamlessly merges fact and fiction as he explores the underlying tensions in both Lesley and Willie’s marriages, as well as Lesley’s intriguing involvement with the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen during his 1910 sojourn in Penang. A side plot involves Lesley’s friend Ethel Proudlock, another real-life figure, who stood trial for the murder of her fellow Englishman in Kuala Lumpur. As in Tan’s other works, the narrative dwells on memory and loss, its lush, dreamy prose evoking the bygone days of colonial pre-WWII British Malaya amid musings on life’s ephemeral nature, while never losing its eye for injustice: “For a woman to be remembered,” Lesley laments, “she has to either be a queen or a whore. But for those of us who lead normal, mundane lives, who will remember us?” This is a stunner. Agent: Jessica Woollard, David Higham Assoc. (Oct.)