Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng’s latest novel The House Of Doors will probably be his last book set in historical Malaya, he shared on a recent "Trees A Crowd" podcast with British artist/actor David Oakes.
Set in 1920s Penang, this new work of historical fiction follows the lives of lawyer Robert Hamlyn and his wife Lesley, and their friendship with Willie Somerset Maugham, the writer.
The House Of Doors was released by British publisher Canongate on May 18 and it has been creating a quite buzz with Tan busy with book launch appointments and publicity events in Britain.
Apart from mainstream bookstores, the better independent bookshops in Malaysia - from Penang's Gerakbudaya to Petaling Jaya's Lit Books - are also anticipating a strong local demand for this much-awaited book from the nation's most famous literary name on the global stage.
As with Tan's earlier novels, The Garden Of Evening Mists (2011) and The Gift Of Rain (2007), readers can expect evocative and highly descriptive prose, and a host of complex, layered characters.
"If colonial Malaysia is a pastiche of middle-class England, his drama is its costumed morality play," wrote Xan Brooks in reviewing Tan's The House Of Doors in The Guardian last week.
"The House Of Doors is brilliantly observed and full of memorable characters. It is so well written, everything so effortlessly dramatised, the narrative so well structured and paced that this is a book that will mesmerise readers far into the future," said acclaimed Irish novelist and journalist Colm Toibin about Tan's new release.
“Expertly constructed, tightly plotted and richly atmospheric,” was the Financial Times' verdict.
In real life, Tan can’t stand people who sit around and mope about their plight without taking steps to right the wrongs.
This is reflected in how he paints his fictional characters.
“I think I write unsympathetic characters faced with difficult situations, because it is interesting for me to see how they get out of it. I really can’t deal with passive characters in life, so my characters are never passive as well - they are always doing something, always trying to get out of their predicament,” he said in the podcast Trees A Crowd.
The Penang-born author's great love for books from a young age helped paved the way to a career as a writer. Having moved around quite a bit as a child, he made sure that his favourite books came along with him on every move.
“Books were my friends, but I didn’t want to be a writer until I was around nine or 10, when I read a book that was so badly written, I thought I could do better. That’s how the idea (to be a writer) was planted, but I didn’t do anything about it because I am inherently lazy. I tried to write one or two stories, but after a page or two, I realised it was such hard work that I’d rather be reading than trying to write,” he added.
In this podcast, this lawyer-turned-author occasionally graces us with amusing responses, like when asked to share his favourite hero from literature.
“I would like to be James Bond because he gets to travel the world and have the best of everything in life. He gets to kill without any consequences. If all of us could kill with no consequences, I think it’d be quite terrifying,” he said with a laugh.
And the one animal he would bring back from extinction? The unicorn, naturally.
Listen to the full interview on Trees A Crowd here.