The House of Doors

by Tan Twan Eng is an absorbing historical novel. It’s based on real-life writer W. Somerset Maugham and the events that inspired one of his short stories, “The Letter”, a murky tale of illicit affairs and murder. In 1921 in a British colonial outpost in Malaysia, Maugham is broke, in failing health, and escaping from a marriage of convenience back in London. Traveling with his secretary and lover, Gerald Haxton, Maugham is reluctantly welcomed for a relaxing vacation at the waterfront home of a fellow British couple, Robert and Lesley Hamlyn. At first Lesley finds Maugham’s vulgar, but the two grow closer and Maugham finds that Leslie, too, is trapped in a marriage and probes her for more information when he finds she had a past romantic connection with the Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Eng weaves together the different layers of this story into a compelling novel about secrets, betrayal, and the rot of colonialism.