Somerset Maugham Does Penang
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Published in: November-December 2023 issue.

by Tan Twan Eng
Bloomsbury Publishing
320 pages, $28.99

WORKS OF FICTION that feature characters who are historical figures, especially ones that feature a writer whose work we know better than their biography, can sometimes lead readers to a greater appreciation of, and affection for, the fictionalized writer. One thinks of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an exquisitely rendered novel that fictionalizes Virginia Woolf and borrows from her style in Mrs. Dalloway. Similarly, Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004) and The Magician (2021) brilliantly bring Henry James and Thomas Mann to fictionalized life, providing clear links between the lives they lived and the fiction they produced.

            Among these novels that fictionalize a part of another writer’s life, we now have The House of Doors, an elegantly written new novel by celebrated Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng. The book draws upon real events to reimagine the details of one of W. Somerset Maugham’s visits to Penang, formerly a state in British Malaya, in the 1920s. In both subject matter and style, Tan’s novel echoes some of Maugham’s life and his own works.

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Hank Trout has served as editor at a number of publications, most recently as senior editor for A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine.