Authors Tan Twang Eng, Anna Metcalfe, Sven Holm

Knocking at the door of the Booker Prize

From an old-fashioned tale to a new-fashioned one, with a dash of dystopia


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading Tan Twan Eng’s third novel, writer Richard Osman commented, “‘The House of Doors’ is the exact title I’d use if I had to invent an imaginary Booker Prize-winning novel in a book. Cynicism aside, he’s spot on: Tan’s first novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and his second was shortlisted. The House of Doors is unquestionably good enough to complete the trajectory.

It is also the latest in a curious sub-genre: that of the biographical novel about a gay (or gay-adjacent) writer, following Colm Tóibín’s brilliant The Master (Henry James) and The Magician (Thomas Mann), Janette Jenkins’s wrongly overlooked Firefly (Noël Coward) and Damon Galgut’s rightly overlooked Arctic Summer (E.M. Forster). 

The House of Doors, Tan Twan Eng (Canongate, £20)

In The House of Doors, the subject is Somerset Maugham, or Willie as he’s known in the book. Most of the story takes place in 1921, when he and his secretary-with-benefits Gerald Haxton are staying with Lesley and Robert Hamlyn. They are old friends of Willie’s in the Straits Settlement of Penang — “Britain’s most important Crown Colony in the Far East,” his guidebook tells him — in what is now Malaysia. Back then Willie, whose work was always more popular than literary, was at the height of his success: his best novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Painted Veil (1925) bookend the period.

But his success hides torment beneath its gilded wings. Willie’s marriage to Syrie Wellcome — a translucent veil over his homosexuality — is troubled, and his visit to Penang seems as much to get away from her as to be with Gerald. She did, we learn, want to go with him: “I’m your wife — although you seem to forget that all the time.” “My dear Syrie,” replied Willie, “I assure you that I find it extremely difficult to forget that you’re my wife.”

On top of this, Willie learns whilst in Penang that he has lost all his money, following the collapse of a brokerage firm into which he had invested his life’s earnings. As well as dashing his plans to give up writing fiction, he fears that with no money, he’ll be a less attractive prospect to Gerald, who is 18 years his junior. (This is the same age gap, as it happens, between Lesley Hamlyn and her husband.)

Willie’s chapters are told with the discreet distance of a third person narrative, and they alternate with Lesley’s first person chapters. She is having her own problems: Robert wants to leave Malaysia for his health, and then she learns something about him that comes as a double-barrelled shock.

She retreats into memories, telling Willie about the twin events in 1910 that shaped her life in Penang: the (real-life) trial of her friend Ethel Proudlock for the murder of a man who may have raped her; and the visit to Penang by the “Chinaman revolutionary” Sun Yat-sen, who would go on to become the first president of the Republic of China the following year, following the collapse of the Qing dynasty.

The Proudlock trial gives the second half of The House of Doors a narrative urgency, but it really doesn’t need it: the book is a pleasure to read even when the only thing happening is Willie “panning [his experiences] for nuggets he hoped could be smelted and hammered into stories”. On that point: “Watch out what you say to Willie,” Robert tells Lesley. “He’s my friend, but he’s also a writer, and there’s nothing he loves more than snuffling out people’s scandals and secrets.” It’s a warning well made, as anyone will know from Maugham’s 1927 play The Letter — which includes secrets Lesley told him about the Ethel Proudlock murder.

Tan’s style is formal, quiet, sedate but alive with detail. (Maugham is described, with perfect attention, as having “a pugnacious jaw and turtle-like aspect”.) This gives the book a somewhat old-fashioned feel, which may after all militate against it in this year’s Booker stakes. This is not a museum piece, however, but a living, breathing story. The language of the time is retained, but with an awareness of history that only the retrospective view can offer. 

So embedded is the British presence in Penang that “the Straits Chinese”, says Sun Yat-sen, “think England is their motherland”. Arthur Loh, an academic Lesley gets to know, puts it more bluntly: “We eat the white man’s shit.” Meanwhile, Robert objects to the arguments against inequality: it is “the way of the world”, he says, and not to be fought against — at least whilst he is one of its beneficiaries.

The novel also chimes with Maugham’s own work in some respects: Willie’s fiction, Lesley observes, is awash with adulterers and unhappy marriages, and there are at least three extra-marital affairs here. (Failure and success, of every kind, is a recurring theme.) It is one of these affairs that gives the book its title: a house full of decorative doors, each appearing to lead somewhere, but covering only another wall. It is a metaphor as strong but beautiful as one might expect from such a fine writer and such an impressive novel.

Chrysalis, Anna Metcalfe (Granta, £14.99)

From an old-fashioned tale to a new-fashioned one: Chrysalis by Anna Metcalfe is modish not just in its subject matter and style, but also because the author has just been named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. It’s been observed that this decade’s list lacks established names (none had the fame of Martin Amis, Iain Banks or Zadie Smith when they made their respective lists), and the corollary — that the 2023 list is more about promise than achievement — is backed up by this debut.

“I liked watching her,” it begins, promisingly. This is Elliot speaking, the first of three voices who circle the subject of the book: a young woman who remains unnamed. Elliot sees her at the gym, “building crazy amounts of muscle”, whilst he goes there “because it stilled my mind”. Yet his mind remains at full speed: he becomes obsessed with the woman and eventually — plausibility be damned — finds her willing to come back to his place for a shower and a look at his book of bodybuilding photography.

Next is the woman’s mother Bella and her friend Susie. We learn from them about the woman’s troubled childhood and her relationship with a colleague who locked her in a room. The woman has since withdrawn from society, living a lifestyle as an “alonement” influencer, posting videos online of fitness poses held for a painful duration, and leading people to abandon their families to follow her.

There is potential value here, exploring how the cult of wellness can make us just as unhappy as its absence did, but the difficulty with Chrysalis is its deliberate evasions. The characters talk to us in a blank style. Although they themselves are well drawn, the risk of putting a hole in the centre of the book where the main character should be just doesn’t pay off. The lack of details — about jobs, events, places — reminds us that what sticks with us in a novel are the details: a conversation, a plot point, a strong stylistic line. Ian McEwan, one of Granta’s 1983 mob, in an interview last year said, “I rather want these writers to get through their 20s and 30s and start naming the world. You know, take some responsibility for it, not just wallow in it!” Though it’s worth noting that McEwan didn’t do that himself until his fifth book, The Child in Time (1987).

By resisting detail, Metcalfe pushes away the reader’s rewards, so that what could have been interesting ends up being, at best, not uninteresting. We are left no closer to understanding the woman than her family and friends are. In the end, Chrysalis adopts so many current literary trends (the social media subject matter, the neutral style, the theme of taking up space in the world), that it reads rather like a best-of, but not in the way Granta intended.

Termush, Sven Holm, translated by Sylvia Clayton (Faber Editions, £9.99)

Sven Holm’s 1967 dystopia Termush is the latest curio from Faber Editions. In contrast to Chrysalis, it succeeds by striking a balance between provoking curiosity and satisfying it. The setting is a deluxe coastal resort where the wealthy are holed up following a nuclear disaster. They spend their days having radiation exposure measured, eating and drinking luxury commodities (brandy, coffee) that were once commonplace, and reading between the lines of the bland official announcements.

To the residents’ consternation, it becomes clear that people in the outside world — the you and me of this society — are aware of Termush, and some are heading there for shelter from the radiation. This sets up tension between the management on the one hand, and residents and medics on the other. 

Holm is less interested in what happens than in how it psychologically affects the residents, in particular our narrator — and also in how the various strata of exploitation work within the resort. The people there are unable to grasp the changes to the outside world, until it is brought home not by “the ploughed-up grounds” but by the sight of “the wholly unalterable sea”. 

In the end, Termush feels like the template to J.G. Ballard’s late works, those repeated tales of chaos in paradise that sought to expose the animal urges behind human civilisation. It’s a frightening tale, but as relevant and readable today as it was more than half a century ago. 

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