Based on real events, the three-time Booker Prize-nominated Tan Twan Eng’s masterful novel of public morality and private truth examines love and betrayal under the shadow of Empire

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. 

Written by Tan Twan Eng

Publication date and time: Published

Somerset Maugham woke up choking for air. Violent coughing rocked his body until, finally, blessedly, it subsided, and he could breathe again.

He lay in his bed inside the cocoon of the mosquito netting, waiting for his breathing to return to normal. There was the faintest aftertaste of mud on his tongue. He swallowed once, licking his lips, and the taste disappeared from his mouth.

His body felt waterlogged as he pushed himself up against the headboard. He had been dreaming: a great wave had swept him overboard into a turbulent river; muddy water poured down his gullet, flooding his lungs and weighting him down into the sunless depths. It was at that point that he had jerked awake in a frenzy of apnoeic snorting.

Parting the mosquito netting, he sat up on the edge of the bed, planting his feet on the floorboards. He felt more fatigued than he had been when he went to sleep. He had kicked the Dutch wife onto the floor, and he was certain he had cried out at the instant he awoke; he hoped no one had heard. He cocked his head to one side, listening; there was only the slurring of the waves on the beach.

His room was sparsely furnished: a rattan armchair by the windows, a low bookcase spilling out with old and yellowing novels, an oakwood chest of drawers against one wall and, in the corner, a washstand with a porcelain basin. Taking up half a wall was a teak almeirah, his bags and trunks stacked on top of it.

He touched the framed photograph of his mother on the bedside table, making a minute adjustment to its position, turning her face more towards the windows. Her brown eyes had always looked mournful, even in his memories; this morning they seemed more melancholy than usual. He picked up the Dutch wife from the floor and set it back on his bed before padding barefoot across the room. He opened the window shutters and leaned out.

The world still lay under a grey ink wash, but at the edges of the sky a pale glow was seeping in. Set in a corner on the first floor of the house, his room had extensive views of the garden below. To his left, about ten yards away, a low wooden fence ran along the bottom of the garden, marking the property from the beach. By the fence grew a tall casuarina tree, a wrought-iron garden bench in its shade. Squinting at the beach, he made out the figure of Lesley Hamlyn. She was standing at the waterline, staring out to sea. A moment later she turned around and started back towards the house. She slipped through the wooden gate and strolled up the lawn, disappearing beneath the verandah roof without looking up at him.

Tan Twan Eng

Robert cut a wedge of Camembert and fed it to the Doberman. The dog wolfed it down, licking its chops. “Claudius loves his cheese.” Robert grinned as he fed the dog another piece. Lesley’s lips, Willie noticed, had disappeared into a thin, taut wire

The houseboy had yet to bring Willie his ewer of hot shaving water. He rinsed his face at the basin and picked out a fresh set of clothes from the wardrobe – a long-sleeved white cotton shirt, a pair of khaki slacks, and a cream linen jacket, pressed by the dhobi the previous evening while they were at dinner. He found his shoes lined up outside his bedroom door, polished to an opulent sheen. The Hamlyns’ bedrooms were across the wide landing, their doors closed. Halfway down the landing was a living area, jutting out to form the top of the porch, the windows on its three sides overlooking the front lawn and the crescent driveway. Beyond this square space were four more rooms. On his side of the landing were the guest bathroom and, next to it, Gerald’s room. Gerald’s brogues had also been shined and set down outside his door. Willie proceeded along the landing to the staircase, pausing now and again to study the row of watercolours on the wall. They were paintings of local shophouses, their thin, black lines – architectural in their precision – detailing the elaborate plasterworks of the shopfronts. The meticulousness of the drawings was enlivened by the brushstrokes of vivid colours, artfully capturing the atmosphere of the teeming, cacophonous Asiatic quarters in the towns of the Straits Settlements. Each one of the paintings had a title in the bottom right corner – Moulmein Road; Bangkok Lane; Ah Quee Street; Rope Walk – and all of them, Willie discovered as he squinted at the signature, had been painted by Lesley Hamlyn.

Downstairs, he made his way through the bright, airy house to the verandah at the back, nodding to the houseboys who stood aside for him in the corridors. Robert and Lesley were already at the breakfast table, walled off from each other behind their newspapers. Willie studied them from the doorway. He remembered Robert as a handsome man, tall and bull-shouldered, so he had been dismayed by the stooped figure who had met him under the porch the previous afternoon, leaning on a gold-headed Malacca cane walking stick and breathing in shallow gasps; the thick head of hair Robert once possessed was gone, the dome of his head now a depilated basilica, with just a narrow fringe of sparse grey hair above his ears. He hadn’t recognised his old friend’s voice either – the resplendent baritone he used to envy had shrivelled to a querulous, fissured tone.

The Doberman lying at Robert’s feet lifted his head and barked as Willie approached the table. Husband and wife lowered their newspapers. ‘Don’t be rude, Claudius,’ Robert said, reaching down to rub the dog’s ears. ‘Morning, Willie. You’re bright and early. Sleep well?’

‘Like a … baby,’ Willie stammered.

‘Help yourself, Willie,’ Robert said, nodding his chin at the sideboard.

Willie opened the lids of the chafing dishes. Kippers and bacon and sausages and eggs and toast, as he had expected. There were also plates of cheeses and bowls of local fruit – bananas and mangoes and starfruit. He filled only half his plate and sat down at the table.

‘Don’t be shy, Willie,’ said Robert.

‘I still can’t get’ – Willie’s jaw jutted out, struggling to force his next word out – ‘get used to the Falstaffian appetites of you people here,’ he said, finally overcoming the blockage in his throat that made people regard him with pity and impatience. ‘The heaps of food at … every meal … in this … heat …’ He turned towards Lesley. ‘I saw you … on the … beach.’

‘My morning walk,’ she said. ‘Your secretary – Gerald – is he up yet?’ The hitch in her words was delicate, but Willie caught it. Holding her gaze, he said, ‘He’s not an … early riser. It won’t cause any inconvenience, I trust?’

‘Don’t be daft, Willie,’ Robert replied, and added to Lesley, ‘Tell Cookie to set something aside for him every morning, won’t you, my dear?’

Robert cut a wedge of Camembert and fed it to the Doberman. The dog wolfed it down, licking its chops. ‘Claudius loves his cheese.’ Robert grinned as he fed the dog another piece. Lesley’s lips, Willie noticed, had disappeared into a thin, taut wire.

‘You have a visitor.’ He pointed to a monitor lizard emerging from the bottom of the hibiscus hedge. The creature was about three feet long, its thick tail almost the length of its body. It crawled across the lawn with a squat, muscular grace, its tongue flicking in and out. The sparrows pecking on the grass flew off.

‘Oh, that’s just Monty,’ said Robert. ‘He showed up here a few years ago. Takes his daily dip in the Warburtons’ pool next door. So what’s on the cards today, old chap? Lesley’ll be delighted to show you the sights.’

Lesley cut in before he could reply. ‘I’m meeting the church bazaar ladies today, and I have errands to run in town afterwards.’

‘Well, one of these days, then,’ said Robert. ‘The old girl’s quite the expert on our island’s history, Willie. Knows everything about the place. Used to give our friends from abroad tours of the town. We showed that German writer around when he was in Penang – what was his name, dear? Hesse, wasn’t it? Yes. Hermann Hesse.’

‘Quiet, lazy days on … the beach, that’s all I want,’ Willie said. ‘I’ve piles … of books to read, and Gerald hasn’t fully recovered yet. He needs his rest, lots … of it.’

‘The poor boy did look rather peaky last night.’ Robert peered over his spectacles at Willie. ‘And so do you, if you don’t mind me saying.’

‘The past few weeks have been rather … trying. Herman Hesse was in Penang?’

‘Eleven or twelve years ago. I’ve never read any of his stuff. Have you?’

‘A couple of them. If you’re finished with that paper, Robert …’

Robert passed him the Straits Times and they ate their breakfast in a comfortable silence. Lesley excused herself and went inside when Robert left for his chambers in town. Willie remained at the table, nursing his cup of tea.

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng