Books

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng review: Compelling drama set in the shadow of Empire

Tan Twan Eng's complex and beguiling novel follows William Somerset Maugham's literary adventures in 1920s Malaysia

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng is out on May 18 (Canongate, £20)

Tan Twan Eng’s novel The House of Doors makes an undeniably compelling tale out of one of the 20th century’s greatest political convulsions, while mixing it with a piece of literary history that is just as complex and beguiling. William Somerset Maugham’s short stories are still popular today, but his initial popularity in literary London relied much on his travels to Asia and the Far East in the Twenties.

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Used to an easy lifestyle of travel and writing based on his wealth, a sudden financial disaster and exposure to the married life of his old friend Robert and wife Lesley forces him to confront his life of literary celebrity. The subtle jibes at the tradition of self-satisfied British prose as it described the revolutions of China and the far-flung offshoots of Empire are combined with the consistent theme of patriarchal domination in this entertaining novel: real-life accounts of broken marriages and murder trials in the Straits Settlements of Penang help to express a new tone to the stories of the heroic travellers that criss-crossed the continent in the first half of the last century, dragging their families and their collective futures with them.

The House of Doors cover

Patrick Maxwell is a writer and journalist 

The House Of Doors by Tan Twan Eng is out on 18 May (Canongate, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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