Malaysia born lawyer and writer Tan Twan Eng writes shape-shifting words, which glitter like disco balls, creating moving patterns that fade without a trace. His first book, The Gift of Rain, was longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize while his second book, The Garden of Evening Mists (2011), won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. And now his latest novel, The House of Doors, has made it to the 2023 Booker longlist.
The House of Doors
The House of Doors is set in Penang, in north-west Malay, where Eng was born before he went to study law at the University of London. In popular imagination, the word “Chinatown” has come to imply a no man’s land where anything is possible and nothing is not quite what it seems. Eng’s recreation of the Chinese colony of Penang in the early 20th century teems with associations of past lives lurking behind closed doors, which open into a labyrinth of mirrors with no exit.
As an older way of life fades away, the Straits Chinese protagonist Arthur saves from destruction the beautiful teakwood doors with engraved motifs that used to front the old Chinese mansions of Penang (some of them are still there). These doors hang inside his home, creating a maze of shifting panels that fascinate the Englishwoman Lesley Hamlyn when she steps into his house, and eventually into his bed.
It is through her eyes that we view the novel’s events which open into different periods of Penang’s history: from 1911, and then in the 1920s after the First World War, when the entire world order changes, most dramatically in the Asian countries and for people under colonial rule. There are so many echoes from the twilight of the Empire in the East that it is difficult to name them all. The doors hanging in Arthur’s house recall Herman Hesse’s hero Harry Haller in Steppenwolf stepping into the “magic theatre”, with its mirror-lined corridor and a series of doors, each leading into a different world. We recall that this was an era when psychoanalysis was “trending”, inviting explorations of repressed desires.
The novels of Rumer Godden come to mind with Eng’s depiction of the typical British memsahib, Lesley, ruling a miniature empire at Cassowary House, where she lives with Robert, her older but obviously influential husband, and a host of servants. There is also a connection to Anna Leonowens, the Indian-born British travel writer whose memoir, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), was the basis of Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944). Anna’s husband, Thomas Leonowens, is mentioned in Eng’s novel.
Anna’s real-life story is fascinating. Born in Ahmednagar, she was an Anglo-Indian who probably disguised this fact when she went “home” to England and married Thomas, a clerk, before they migrated to Australia and then to Malaysia. In later life, according to the Wikipedia entry, she taught Sanskrit at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.
“Given how even today homosexuals are persecuted in Malaysia, it would seem that nothing much has changed since Maugham sipped tea and sympathy on the rattan chairs of Lesley’s verandah.”
One remembers the Chinese-born English author Han Suyin, with her interracial love affairs and commitment to communism, when a prim and proper Lesley faces an emotional crisis as she finds out about her husband’s secret lover. At this stage she meets Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the charismatic revolutionary leader who is on a mission to overthrow the Chinese Qing dynasty and replace it with his own “Republic of China”. It is through him that she comes into contact with Arthur, the Straits Chinese pamphleteer who is spearheading the cause of Sun Yat-sen.
Eng’s great success lies in bringing Sun Yat-sen alive through Lesley’s eyes. We get to watch her personal response to his public persona when he speaks to his Chinese audience, and her reservations when she finds out that he has both a wife and a mistress. (A possible love affair between Lesley and Sun Yat-sen is a teaser trail that Eng manages to suggest.) We get to see a whole new side to the now almost forgotten figure of Sun Yat-sen, who played a vital role in guiding feudal China into the 20th century. His wife was one of the three beautiful Soong Sisters: another married General Chiang Kai-shek, leader of Taiwan.
- Malaysia born lawyer and writer Tan Twan Eng’s latest novel, The House of Doors, is in the Booker longlist
- The House of Doors is set in Penang, in north-west Malay, where Eng was born before he went to study law at the University of London
- The novel’s events open into different periods of Penang’s history: from 1911, and then in the 1920s after the First World War
- Many historical figures, like the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen and English author Somerset Maugham, come wonderfully alive in the novel
Maugham at the centre
Yet none of these names can compete with the one that Eng places at the centre of his narrative—Somerset Maugham. One of the most popular English writers in his time, William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was akin to a boppa, a wandering minstrel travelling from village to village, sharing his stories of infidelity and lost loves, of Koi Hai Clubs and endless tea parties, of torrid lives in tropical settings, and, above all, the emptiness at the heart of the Empire. Eng seems to morph into Willie, as his friends call him, when Maugham accepts an invitation from his old wartime buddy Robert Hamlyn, and becomes a guest at Cassowary House. He has as his companion a young, feckless escort, Gerald. Their relationship is possible only because they are living in the colonies, far away from London, where Maugham has a high-society wife. Given how even today homosexuals are persecuted in Malaysia, it would seem that nothing much has changed since Maugham sipped tea and sympathy on the rattan chairs of Lesley’s verandah.
There is a wonderful paragraph describing why the house is named Cassowary but readers can discover it for themselves. I cannot help but quote here a paragraph describing an evening when Lesley throws off her inhibitions and leaps into the sea with Willie on discovering a cloud of phosphorescent plankton swimming close to the shore. “All at once we were swimming in cobalt fire, every kick and stroke igniting the tempests of plankton swirling around us. I laughed, the sound rupturing the quiet windless night, and then Willie joined me. Our naked bodies were visible in the water, but what was there to be embarrassed about? We were nothing but two insects preserved in amber, after all.”
This brought to mind a famous professor at the English Department of Elphinstone College, Bombay, Kamal Wood, describing how she and her small group of friends would go skinny-dipping off the sea in Juhu. “On some nights when the waves were filled with phosphorescence, we would shed our clothes and come out with our bodies spangled with silver,” she said. Would such an experience be possible in any of our beaches today?
Tan Twan Eng is something of a time traveller who opens many such doors leading to unknown destinations.
Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer, critic, and cultural commentator.