Early on, for instance, when Maugham tells Lesley’s cook that the dinner is the best meal he has eaten “in the East,” Lesley conveniently replies, “You won’t find anything like it anywhere in the world. . . . Over the centuries Penang has absorbed elements from the Malays and the Indians, the Chinese and the Siamese, the Europeans, and produced something that’s uniquely its own. You’ll find it in the language, the architecture, the food.”
Eng elegantly animates a complex social scene, in alternating chapters seen from Maugham’s point of view (in the third person), and from Lesley Hamlyn’s (in the first person). Maugham, known as Willie to his friends, has arrived with Haxton; it isn’t immediately obvious to Lesley that the men are lovers, and the revelation is unwelcome.
Lesley’s account of her affair with Arthur has a lovely, drifting, dreamlike quality—the adulterers almost afloat on their new passion, watched over by the hanging painted doors of Arthur’s house on Armenian Street. In these and other scenes, Eng demonstrates the control and the exquisite reticence that made his previous novel, “The Garden of Evening Mists,” a sharply magical collocation.
But these relationships and encounters lack the power and the narrative emphasis of the central Ethel Proudlock story, which casts an enviably dramatic shadow over the whole book.