Sometimes a writer falls so deeply under the spell of another writer that it can feel as if the predecessor’s blood has begun flowing through the acolyte’s own veins. I once had the privilege of talking to Cynthia Ozick about craft, when she confessed to writing out Henry James’s prose in longhand, just to feel what he must have felt when he composed his elegant, lengthy sentences.
In an essay about this ongoing reverence—which perhaps climaxed with her 2010 novel, Foreign Bodies, inspired by James’s The Ambassadors—Ozick recalled how, at the age of 22, she “became Henry James. Even without close examination, you could see the light glancing off my pate; you could see my heavy chin, my watch chain, my walking stick, my tender paunch”—all this from a brilliant American Jewish girl born in the Bronx.
Fans of Michael Cunningham’s tender homage to Virginia Woolf, in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Hours, may recognize a similar devotion, a writer so in love with Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway that his own novel not only reflects but also interacts with her text, riffs on her prose style, and includes Woolf herself as a character. Several reviewers suggested that Cunningham was actually “haunted” by Woolf.
Now we have the latest work from Tan Twan Eng, the best-selling, Booker Prize–contending author of The Garden of Evening Mists. His sultry new novel, The House of Doors (also recently long-listed for the heady Booker), appears to have been spun into existence as a more languorous, enlarged, and complex offspring of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “The Letter.”
Here, as with the Cunningham, Maugham himself plays a leading role in the book’s unfolding drama as one of Eng’s dueling narrators. The other is Lesley Hamlyn, the younger, steely wife of Maugham’s longtime friend and host, Robert Hamlyn, a successful and well-regarded lawyer. The Hamlyns appear to be Eng’s creation.
When Maugham arrives at their door, secretly in dire straits, they are living a privileged, if cloistered, expat life in Penang, Malaysia. The marriage is strained, yet cordial. Maugham is exhausted from incessant travels with his secretary and lover—the wild, handsome, and, thankfully, hilarious Gerald—and from hiding out perpetually from his wife. Desperate to repair his ruinous financial situation, he does what he can to raise money, by writing, of course. The result is a collection of stories about hothouse Brits and their Chinese cohabitants in Malaysia, some of it based on gossip Lesley feeds to him out of her own despair and increasingly fascinating motivations.
“The Letter,” a riveting potboiler, was one of those stories, published in Maugham’s 1926 collection, The Casuarina Tree. It was based, as is this novel, on some true-life characters. One, Ethel Proudlock, was a headmaster’s wife who was tried for murdering a man she claimed had attempted to rape her—a scandal that also became a cause célèbre in the real world, as well as in the worlds of both of these books, Maugham’s and Eng’s. The scandal and trial also give The House of Doors a needed motor, after a somewhat slow start. In Eng’s novel, fictional Lesley is real-life Ethel’s best friend, and her whispered secrets, along with her alliance with the Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-sen, give Maugham the juice to proceed with his work and rescue his lifestyle.
But there is more to this novel than just mirrors within mirrors. Eng is of Straits Chinese descent, born in Penang and raised in Kuala Lumpur. In this bold historical fiction, he courageously exposes his motherland’s flaws, exploring thorny issues of race, racism, gender and gender preference, bigotry, infidelity, and colonial power in richly mannered, atmospheric, and expressive prose, some of which is simply beautiful. “Everything was so bleak—the parchment landscape, the faces of the people, even the light itself. How I ached for the monsoon skies of the equator, for the ever-changing tints of its chameleon sea.”
Unfortunately, Eng’s prose can also be clumsy: “The urge to escape England to leave everything behind, was always lurking inside [Maugham], gnawing into his bones, into his soul. Syrie [his wife] sensed it too—she had been keeping her eyes peeled out for it, ready to pounce.” Occasionally the prose oscillates between those poles, according to taste, I suppose: “As I led the men across the verandah into the house, I heard—and felt—the soles of my shoes crushing the bodies of the moths and flying ants that had fallen to earth, their wings scorched when they flew too near to electric suns.”
But no one can argue with the ambition, ardency, and achievement of Eng’s complex latest. Behold the novel’s epigraph, a quote from who else but Maugham himself: “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.” Such is the mysterious and thought-provoking alchemy of two halves of a certain breed of authorial self: the fiction-lover and the fiction writer.
Helen Schulman is a New York City–based writer and professor. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, Lucky Dogs, named one of Oprah’s 10 Best Novels of 2023