Volatile Rune

For Life and Literature in a Volatile World

The House of Doors – Burned out Ends of Smoky Dynasties

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This is book #10 of my 10 Books of Summer.  Thank you to Cathy@746 Books for hosting this challenge again in 2023.

Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian novelist who writes in English.  No stranger to prize winning novels – Tan published his first novel The Gift of Rain in 2007.  This was followed in 2012 by  The Garden of Evening Mists which according to wiki won the Man Asian Literary Prize and Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction as well as being shortlisted for the Booker.

The same sense of poignancy and memory pervades this, Tan’s latest work, The House of Doors. It’s been a long wait – and who knows how long before there will be another book – so my advice is to savour every word of this one, and with this level of writing it’s not difficult.  For me The House of Doors is the best book I will read in 2023  (even though its only August).  Already Tan has been long listed for the 2023 Booker prize – I truly hope he wins this time.

So to the story.

Set in Penang, Malaysia –  The House of Doors is based on real political events and the life of Somerset Maugham who arrives in Penang one day with his male ‘secretary’ Gerald Haxton in tow, to visit old friends, the lawyer Robert Hamlyn and his wife Lesley.  The narrative viewpoint is shared between Maugham and Lesley Hamlyn.  The story is set a little earlier in history than Tan’s two previous books, mainly between the years of 1910 and 1921,  among the expat and governing cliques of colonial

Brits where cocktail parties and dining at the club are the order of the day, women hardly counted for anything, and among the servants at Cassowary House, ‘No 1 houseboy’ is 52 years old.

The House of Doors is haunted by the burned out ends of dynasties and patriarchies; while in the garden of the Hamlyn’s mansion grows the casuarina tree.  This tree would ultimately provide W. Somerset Maugham with the title for a collection of short stories which he wrote based on his travels in the region, and which ultimately rendered him persona non grata among the British expat community who felt he had betrayed their confidences.

It is hard to feel any regard now for the passing of such an inegalitarian era, yet the pre-war years still hold an aura of innocence –  or a feeling of calm before the storm is probably more accurate, though it is perhaps only with hindsight of having survived the storm that we come to appreciate the calm.   Tan seems to catch an entire social order on the point of collapse, and does so with such consummate skill and beauty, I felt that the same shades which haunt The House of Doors echo also among the pages of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Albeit half a world away.

In 1910, rebellion,  social upheavals and the first world war are a few years away.  In China, the last years of the Ching dynasty are about to give way a new republic; cataclysmic change is afoot. Yet the questions which Tan asks in his book are not political.  We know with the wisdom of hindsight that a republic of China, once lauded and fought for,  ended eventually in the ascent of Chairman Mao and the death of millions.   These events happen off screen, we are aware only of intensely personal loves, losses and memories of those who survive.

Tan’s work is more concerned with how these events will be set down?  Who will be the storyteller of the new day? Maugham wants it to be him, needs it to be him.  He’s had successful books in plenty but thanks to a ruinous investment, he’s broke.  Maugham comes across as a bit irresponsible, and spoiled brat-ish.  I have no idea how accurate this is and I don’t care, although I found it much harder to sympathise with his part in the story than Lesley Hamlyn.  I noticed that the Guardian reviewer had a few issues with accuracy of some of the historical facts.  Again, don’t care.  This is fiction of the highest order.


Recently finished reading:      Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin (Vintage, 2003. Trans George Bird).  Another work of art from Kurkov;  Misha the penguin is the creation of a master.  I preferred this to the Jimi Hendrix book but Grey Bees remains my favourite of his works that I’ve read.

Currently reading:

Alberto Manguel,   A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books

I have already read and reviewed Packing My Library and The Library at Night. I’m getting a bit obsessed with the work of this author.  In A Reading Diary I am on the section relating to Conan-Doyle’s The Sign of Four.

I am going to find a real set of Manguel’s books rather than reading them on kindle.  I don’t think Manguel is the sort of author that does kindles.  But he definitely does cities.

“For me, no German city (neither Döblin’s Berlin nor Thomas Mann’s Lübeck) ever had the reality of Conan Doyle’s London: the gaslit rooms in Baker Street, the evil winding streets, the genteel foggy squares.  Years later I travelled to London, convinced that I would find that memorable geography. My first shilling-metered bed-sitter above a fish-and-chips shop disabused me.”

Just reading that passage made me want to read The Sign of Four. Manguel’s true genius lies in finding commonality and ancestry among his literary heroes, sometimes in the strangest places.  He quotes one Samuel Rosenberg, literary consultant to to a major motion picture studio as being able to link Nietzsche, Melville, Mary Shelley, Boccaccio, Racine, Flaubert and many others to the Sherlockian saga, in an effort to fend off accusations of plagiarism!

The Diary of AnaÏs Nin

I am enjoying Nin’s writing but found that I had purchased Volume Four, without having read any of her books or the first three volumes of the diary, so I have no idea what’s going on or who any of the people are that she refers to! Otherwise, everything is fine.

Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia  Struggling a bit with this but determined to finish it.

Holiday reading:

We are shortly off to Crete for our Annual Much Needed Holiday. Bring it on.

While there, I propose a buddy read with Rune Son Senior of The Broken Sword a fantasy novel by Poul Anderson. Set during the Viking Age, the book was originally published in 1953 and reissued in 2002 by Gollancz.  I am very excited about this one.  We are both fans of the fantasy genre.

Finally, buried beneath Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves on a tottering pile of books in the spare room, I found a copy of The Instant by Amy Liptrot that I had forgotten I owned.  The Outrun, Liptrot’s debut autobiographical account of dealing with demon drink, was a hit.  I hope this one will be as good.

Thank you so much for reading and following my various literary ramblings this year. I am always so grateful to receive comments as it means that I am not talking to myself.

Of course the year is nothing like over, so I will be back.  Meanwhile, Volatile Rune is taking a summer break.

Back in September.


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


The Volatile Muse

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