Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023. Based on real events, Booker Prize-shortlisted Tan Twan Eng’s masterful novel of public morality and private truth examines love and betrayal under the shadow of Empire

It is 1921 and at Cassowary House in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Robert Hamlyn is a well-to-do lawyer, his steely wife Lesley a society hostess. Their lives are invigorated when Willie, an old friend of Robert’s, comes to stay.   

Willie Somerset Maugham is one of the greatest writers of his day. But he is beleaguered by an unhappy marriage, ill-health and business interests that have gone badly awry. He is also struggling to write. The more Lesley’s friendship with Willie grows, the more clearly she see him as he is – a man who has no choice but to mask his true self.  

As Willie prepares to face his demons, Lesley confides secrets of her own, including her connection to the case of an Englishwoman charged with murder in the Kuala Lumpur courts – a tragedy drawn from fact, and worthy of fiction.  

The Booker Prize 2023
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Tan Twan Eng

Tan Twan Eng

About the Author

Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia, and worked as an advocate in one of Kuala Lumpur's leading law firms before becoming a full-time writer.
More about Tan Twan Eng

Tan Twan Eng on writing The House of Doors

‘In my teenage years, when I first read Somerset Maugham’s The Letter, I was intrigued to discover that he had based it on Ethel Proudlock’s trial in Kuala Lumpur in 1911. She was the first white woman to be charged with murder in Malaya. She claimed that the man she had shot dead had tried to rape her in her home.  

‘The House of Doors is about many things, but at the heart of it all, it is really about the acts of creation: how Maugham had come to hear about the trial, and how he had transmuted it into his story. It’s about the power of stories, how they can transcend cultures and borders, transcend even time itself.    

‘I see The House of Doors and The Letter as mirrors of each other. How you read The House of Doors will affect your reading of The Letter, which in turn will then change how you view The House of Doors, which in turn will then alter your impressions of The Letter, which in turn will … and on and on it goes, a pair of mirrors, reflecting each other into infinity, the patterns of the reflections changing every time you look at them.

Read the full interview here.

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng

What the judges said

‘Drawing on the life and writing of Somerset Maugham, The House of Doors is a magisterial and haunting tale of forbidden love and loss in the shadow of revolution and empire. This is historical fiction at its finest.’

What the critics said

Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

‘Beautifully detailed and encompassing the vagaries of Maugham’s life, the contours of his creativity and the personal and political tensions covertly quivering through the sultry colony around him, The House of Doors is a finely accomplished piece of work.’

Claire Allfree, Daily Telegraph

The House of Doors pays tribute to storytelling itself as a means not just of memorialising, but recreating.’

Alice Jolly, Times Literary Supplement

‘What elevates Eng’s book is the sheer beauty of his writing - restrained, elegant, precise, every detail accurate, every line considered. Pain, loss and disappointment seep from every page, as do beauty and compassion […] Tan Twan Eng resides in the very top row.’ 

Xan Brooks, The Guardian

‘A book about memory, loss and cultural dissonance; a high-flown tragedy […] If Tan’s antiquated constructions call attention to themselves, I think that’s partly the point. Everyone in this drama is wearing an ill-fitting mask. Sooner or later they are liable to unhook and slip loose.’

Air Mail

‘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, which is simply beautiful […] no one can argue with the ambition, ardency, and achievement of Eng’s complex latest.’

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng

Other nominated books by Twan Eng Tan

The Garden of Evening Mists
The Gift of Rain