Public Morals, Private Truth: Exploring the Process of Literary Creation


Tan Twan Eng will be known to many for his earlier novel, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), which won the Man Asian Literary Prize and Walter Scott Prize. Eleven years later The House of Doors (Canongate, 2023) is another masterly exploration of storytelling, exposing the gulf between society’s demands and truth, above all where love and duty clash. The book spans the early decades of the last century, moving from the British colony of Penang, in the Straits Settlements, to Doornfontein in South Africa.

Robert Hamlyn, a successful English lawyer in Penang, is visited by an old friend, the renowned author Willie Somerset Maugham, whose arrival at Cassowary House in 1921 is a salutary boost to Robert’s failing health. Lesley, his wife, is unusual in that she speaks both Hokkien and Malay and is both fascinated and initially distrustful of their house guest, who does little to hide his intimacy with his secretary, Gerald. Thousands of miles away, in London, Willie’s own marriage is on the rocks, and his financial affairs have suffered a severe setback. As a writer, Somerset Maugham garnered inspiration from the places he visited and the lives of the expats he met: one of his best-known stories, The Casuarina Tree, reflects the case of an Englishwoman, Ethel Proudlock, on trial for murder in Kuala Lumpur. Tan Twan Eng unravels this process so that when Lesley decides to tell the visiting author about her friendship with Ethel, and about the events that rocked her own marriage at the time, her dilemma and choices are also presented – perhaps intentionally – as literary inspiration.

Themes of trust and love are coupled with their opposites, betrayal and hypocrisy. The narrative structure intertwines two separate voices: like doors that swing and turn, composing and then fragmenting truth. “It’s much easier for a writer using the first-person narrative device to create an immediate connection and a powerful intimacy with the reader. But the reader’s view is limited to only what Lesley could have seen or heard or known herself. And there’s the also the question of how truthful she is.” Sometimes, Tan Twan Eng adds, experimenting is essential: “I normally know the narrative viewpoints I want to use before I start writing. With The House of Doors I experimented with the first-person device via Maugham, but ultimately, I found it too restrictive – I needed him to have a broader, more worldly and detached viewpoint for the story to work. The contrast between Lesley’s first-person viewpoint and Maugham’s third person viewpoint reveals the differing versions of what the characters purported to be the truth.”

Among the characters in The House of Doors is the revolutionary Sun Yat Sen who led to the downfall of the Qing dynasty: “My father grew up in a house in Armenian Street in Penang in the 1950s and ‘60s. He used to tell me and my sister that just a few doors away was the house in which Dr Sun Yat Sen had once lived.  It was only when I was in my teens that I learned who he was, but that scrap of trivia has always nagged at the edge of my mind. Not many people seem to think it remarkable that Penang had been a cog in the revolution that brought down the ancient monarchy of China. My father died in 2013, and I’m grateful that I could pay tribute to him in my book, via this small fragment he had told me, once upon a long ago.”

I was struck by the profound sense of place in the novel, based on Tan Twan Eng’s evocative descriptions of the local customs, language and, particularly, the architecture: “One of my favourite things to do when I go to Penang,” Tan Twan Eng tells me, “is to walk for hours with no destination in mind. The narrow, colourful and noisy streets of George Town are full of old shophouses and clanhouses and temples with these gorgeous doors, but we’re losing so many of these irreplaceable buildings to development and so-called progress.” The natural environment, too, lingers in the mind long after reading the final page: whether it is the fiery blue phosphorescence, or the “cloud caravels” and the stars of the Karoo. “As a reader I’m attracted to novels with a powerful sense of place and time and atmosphere,” Tan Twan Eng states. “The setting must be almost character by itself. In my writing I wanted to create these sensations for the reader.” Plants and trees are named throughout, some familiar others less so: raintrees, angsana trees, bromeliads and frangipani. Local folklore is also added, as in the case of the casuarina tree, whose leaves are reminiscent of the cassowary’s feathers. “The stories about the trees I unearthed from my reading and research”, Tan Twan Eng tells me. “The anecdote about the casuarina tree, how it whispers secrets to the listener, I found it in Maugham’s preface to The Casuarina Tree. When I first read it, I wondered, ‘Where did he hear that from?’ I decided to have some fun by letting Lesley tell it to him. I enjoy the idea of how stories travel around in loops. We’re all echoes of other echoes.”

Recalling a phrase in the book when Willie tells Lesley that he writes best as the conduit for a story that demands to be told, I ask Tan Twan Eng about his writing process. “There were numerous moments during the writing of The House of Doors when I came very close to giving up. The book just wasn’t working, it wasn’t cohering, it was all muddled. But I kept chipping away at it, rewriting it endlessly, because the story – the many stories in the novel – demanded and clamoured to be told. I couldn’t drop it, couldn’t abandon it and move on to write another novel. It wouldn’t allow me to.” This is confirmed when Tan Twan Eng tells me that even one of the most intriguing plot devices, the glyph or hamsa used by Somerset Maugham, came to him as he was rewriting one day: “That’s what I love most about the writing process – how totally disparate, unconnected elements can merge and create something original. At its heart, The House of Doors is really about the act and process of literary creation.”

About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt is Features Editor for HNR, and also a translator and historian. She blogs occasionally at A World of Words []

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 104 (May 2023)

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