By Judith Revenberg
Contains mentions of death, mental health, and suicide (& spoilers)
Earlier this year, I was introduced to an author whom I now call one of my favourites: TJ Klune. The book that won me over was The House in the Cerulean Sea (2020), a novel filled with gentle dialogue and endearing characters about learning to accept others and simultaneously yourself. Consequently, it was a no-brainer that when Klune’s most recent novel Under the Whispering Door was released in September 2021, I had to get my hands on it as soon as possible.
It is not necessarily a ground-breaking novel. There have been many books about life after death, morality, and acceptance, and I am sure there will be many more. Klune even seems to build upon the formula of his previous novel when it comes to the basic structure of the plot. Still, he has a talent for storytelling, and before I knew it, Klune’s characters once again found their way into my heart.
Under the Whispering Door follows Wallace Price, an attorney, who is cruel, unlikable, unrelatable, and, consequently, an interesting choice for the main character. After all, it is common for an author to include character traits a reader can resonate with, can look at and say, ‘I do that too!’ But Wallace is not written to be likeable – at least not at the start of the novel. Instead, he acts thoughtlessly, indifferent to others’ feelings. This is evident from the first lines, which read, “Patricia was crying. Wallace hated it when people cried” (Klune 7). They are followed by him firing Patricia, after which Wallace is quickly established as “cold and calculating” (12) by his employees.
It takes dying for Wallace finally to recognise his flaws. As a ghost, he attends his funeral, to which only four people show up. When his ex-wife gives a gruelling eulogy about what a terrible person he was – “he was obstinate, foolhardy, and cared only for himself” (33) – Wallace agrees to accompany Mei, his personal reaper, to start the next chapter in his existence. She brings him to Charon’s Crossing Tea Shop, where he meets Hugo, the so-called ferryman. The teashop is referred to as a way station throughout the novel, stating that it is “a stop along the path we’re all travelling on” (331). Hugo, as a ‘ferryman’, is there to help those who passed cross to the other side, accompanied by Mei and the ghosts of Hugo’s grandfather, Nelson, and dog, Apollo. What unfurls is a story about grief, personal growth, and unexpected love, with a third act that will have you in tears.
Since The House in the Cerulean Sea was a New York Times, USA Today, and Washington Post bestseller and received various awards, many readers might inevitably recognise links between the two novels. Upon Wallace’s arrival at the teashop, he notices a picture of “an island in a cerulean sea, the trees so thick, he couldn’t see the ground” (67). This feels like a deliberate nod towards The House in the Cerulean Sea, even though that story takes place in a different reality. The picture is not the only connection. Under the Whispering Door is also built on a found-family trope with a gentle queer romance subplot between Wallace and Hugo. The novels are centred around personal growth, although Linus from The House in the Cerulean Sea recognises he worked for a flawed system, while Wallace realises he was the core issue. Throughout the book, Wallace acknowledges he was an objectively bad person while alive and uses death to improve his behaviour.
Both Linus and Wallace are shown the error of their ways and become better for it, and are accepted by their newly found family. In Under the Whispering Door, Wallace is told by Nelson, “We don’t need you because that implies you had to fix something in us. We were never broken. We want you, Wallace. Every piece. Every part. Because we’re family. Can you see the difference?” (473).
However, while The House in the Cerulean Sea was about acceptance and sticking up for yourself and felt aimed towards a younger audience, this novel explores far heavier themes, including grief, suicide, and mental health. When it comes to grief, Klune draws from personal experience. The dedication of the novel states, “For Eric. I hope you woke up in a strange place” (5). This is in reference to his late fiancé, Eric Arvin, who was hospitalised in 2013 for a benign tumour on his brainstem. He became dependent on a ventilator and died in 2016 of pneumonia. In a blog post about Arvin’s passing, in which Klune explains he suffered from severe depression during the period before his fiancé’s death, he writes, “Everything I knew crumbled around me. And oh, did I sink into the darkness of it all” (Klune).
In the acknowledgements of Under the Whispering Door, Klune states that the novel is “a deeply personal story for me; therefore it was very hard to write. It took a lot out of me to finish, as it forced me to explore my own grief over someone I loved very much” (Klune 544). His willingness to use his grief and channel it into the story is evident, and his descriptions regarding the subject are painfully beautiful:
Grief, Wallace knew, had the power to consume, to eat away until there was nothing left but hollowed-out bones. Oh, the shape of the person remained as it was, even if the cheeks turned sallow, and dark circles formed under the eyes. Hollowed out and left raw, they were still recognizably human. It came in stages, some smaller than others, but undeniable. (405)
Klune’s writing style borders on poetic. There is an ease to how he strings metaphors together to visualise Wallace’s emotions. Especially in the third act, during which Wallace is forced to say his goodbyes and pass on, Klune brought me to tears more than once. The ability to make the reader care enough about characters to transfer fictional feelings from page to reality is evidence of truly skilled writing, a talent Klune continues to display.
Despite the romance subplot, the novel does not romanticise grieving in and of itself. Instead, it touches upon various facets of death and loss and does not shy away from displaying grief’s toll on the people left behind. This is not just with regard to Wallace’s death. We are also introduced to a mother who lost her child and cannot get over her grief, a man who was murdered and cannot accept he is dead, and someone who was so lost after the death of a loved one, he took his own life.
Klune’s characters suffer, but rather than ignoring what that does to a person, he tackles the subject of mental health head-on. Hugo suffers from anxiety and depression, caused by both the death of his parents at a young age and the deaths he deals with daily. It causes him to have panic attacks, as described in the following scene:
It took a long time, but Wallace didn’t push. He wouldn’t. Not when Hugo was like this. It wouldn’t help. So he sat there, head bowed, tapping his finger on the boards beneath him, a tiny sound to let Hugo know he was there. […]
Wallace must have tapped his finger a hundred times before Hugo spoke. “I’m fine,” he said, voice hoarse.
“Okay,” Wallace said easily. “But it’s all right if you’re not, too.” He hesitated. “Panic attacks are no joke.” (362)
Instead of glossing over mental health concerns for the sake of furthering the plot, Klune makes conversations like these an integral part of his novels. This shows that dealing with trauma, depression, and anxiety is an ever-continuing process, which cannot be resolved in the manner of a few pages, and is not inferior to physical conditions.
Wallace decides to remain a ghost at the teashop for the time being. He falls in love with Hugo, starts to care deeply about Mei and Nelson, and becomes an integral part of their unconventional family. Consequently, it comes as a shock when, in the last third of the book, a deity referred to as ‘The Manager’ appears. He mirrors the person Wallace used to be – a cold-hearted, calculating being who only cares whether his system works fluently. The Manager forces Wallace to cross to the other side and gives him one week to get his affairs in order, saying, “There is no loophole, no last-minute bit of evidence you can fling upon the courtroom in a display of your legal prowess. […] don’t make the mistake of thinking I’ll look the other way for you. This was always temporary” (401).
So starts the third act of the novel. Wallace works towards accepting his faith, making sure there are no loose ends, and eventually finds peace with the idea that he has to move on. Because of this, when the Manager, who was quite clear about the lack of loopholes, suddenly decides to make an exception and brings Wallace back to life to work as a reaper, alongside Hugo and Mei, I stumbled.
On one hand, I do enjoy happy endings, to see everything fall into place regardless of the hardships the characters went through, and, sure, it is nice that Wallace gets a second chance at life after all. But Klune spends a lot of time and pages helping the reader accept Wallace’s (the story’s) seemingly inevitable destination, and the sudden twist felt like it undid part of the emotional journey. Yes, the expected course would have been painful to read, but it would have been more in line with the message that while life does not always turn out the way we want it, it is up to us to make it work.
Regardless, Klune conveys a topic as heavy as death in a captivating, moving, and heart-breaking manner but still leaves us hopeful. As he confronts us with the inevitability of death and grief, he shows there is a way through the pain with moving dialogue and descriptions: “Wallace whispered, ‘It’s easy to let yourself spiral and fall.’ ‘It is,’ Nelson agreed. ‘But it’s what you do to pull yourself out of it that matters most.’” (295). Under the Whispering Door is a reminder that even when we have spiralled into our emotions and grief to a point beyond recognition, into a husk of who we used to be, we are not beyond saving.
Judith Revenberg is a graduate student in literature at Utrecht University. She is an avid reader of Young- and New Adult fiction and has researched characterisation and protective mimicry presented in YA novels. Judith has written book reviews for bol.com’s Lees Magazine and, as head of PR for RevUU, is always on top of the developments in the literary field.
- Klune, TJ “The Failings of a Human Being.” A Fistful of Awesome, 27Apr.2020, http://www.TJklunebooks.com/newblog/2020/4/27/the-moralistic-failings-of-a-human-being. Accessed on 14-10-2021.
- —. The House in the Cerulean Sea. Tom Doherty Associates, 2020.
- —. Under the Whispering Door. Tom Doherty Associates, 2021.