The House of Doors

Bloomsbury. Oct. 2023. 11:15 hrs. ISBN 9781639731954. $27. F
In Eng’s (The Garden of Evening Mists) Booker-longlisted historical novel based on real events, “Willie” Somerset Maugham’s need for escape and inspiration sends him to Penang in 1921. There he meets Lesley Hamlyn, his friend Robert’s perfect hostess of a wife. Though Lesley doesn’t approve of Maugham’s extramarital gay affairs, they begin to understand each other, leading Lesley to reveal secrets about her fellow countrypeople—murder, affairs, and ties to China’s revolutionaries. Louise-Mai Newberry and David Oakes narrate, with Oakes voicing Maugham’s chapters and Newberry Lesley’s. The narrators don’t give each other’s characters the same voices, but both pull listeners completely into the prose. The real Maugham stuttered, and both narrators portray his disfluencies respectfully. As Lesley becomes Maugham’s muse, they explore the complications of love, gender, sexuality, and class, plus the trap of keeping up appearances. Listeners should be aware that the novel uses some of the racist language that would have been part of the vocabularies of British people on the colonized Malay Peninsula.
VERDICT A riveting yet sedately paced novel about inspiration and identity, sure to be enjoyed by those who like Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey or Juliette Fay’s City of Flickering Light.
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