By Tara Huisman
Warning: The following review contains spoilers.
Under the Whispering Door is a book about death, but it’s not a book about dying. T.J. Klune’s latest book tells the story of Wallace Price: a cold and uncaring lawyer, who only in death realises that he hasn’t truly lived. What follows is a tale of grief, love, and learning to deal with the messiness and mysteriousness of living. And all this takes place in a cosy tea shop in the woods, that functions as a waystation for the recently deceased. Charon’s Crossing Tea and Treats is a soft and warm space filled with mismatched furniture, vined plants, and a powerful scent of spices. Wallace’s arrival at Charon’s Crossing happens with the same grace as sticking your ice-cold hands into a warm bath: painful, and accompanied by a strong reflex to remove yourself from the situation. But Wallace is granted no such luxury.
By the end of Under the Whispering Door, Wallace works out that “[life]’s about the people, and what we’re willing to do for one another” (318). And the people are precisely what brings life to the novel. There’s Mei, a new and energetic Reaper who guides the deceased to the tea shop and comforts them (“Death isn’t a final ending, Wallace. It’s an ending, sure, but only to prepare you for a new beginning” (120)). There’s Nelson, the old grandfather who died many years ago but stays around anyway (“We think we have time for such things, but there’s never enough for all we should have said”) (232). And last but definitely not least, Hugo. Hugo. Hugo is not just the ferryman who helps the deceased cross, he is the heart and soul of the novel. Empathetic to a fault, imperfect, but most of all: kind. Human. (“I took the job because I wanted to. How could I not? Helping people when they need it most, when they think all is lost? Of course I’d agree to it (235).”) And as Wallace slowly falls in love with him, he learns that same kindness.
For those familiar with Klune’s other work, such a strong cast of characters should come as no surprise. His previous book, The House in the Cerulean Sea (2020), was praised for both its endearing characters and its charm, two traits that I can confidently say have returned in Under the Whispering Door. The book features well-rounded characters and takes time to explore their various histories and motivations. Another recurring theme in Klune’s work, is that his books often feature gay, bisexual, and asexual characters (How to be a Normal Person, The Extraordinaries, Murmuration). Under the Whispering Door is no exception. The novel features multiple LGBTQIA+ characters, but it’s not a story about being LGBTQIA+. It is a story where the characters can just exist as themselves, where they just happen to be LGBTQIA+. This is an important distinction. It allows them to just exist without having to make a statement about their sexuality. It is a story in which being LGBTQIA+ is already normalised.
Not only does Klune’s work feature strong characters, Klune writes with an easy flow that makes Under the Whispering Door impossible to put down. I sat down with a hot cup of tea to read this book and found myself still in the same spot hours later, my tea long having gone cold. And like Hugo, I take my tea very seriously. Take the first chapter for example, Wallace’s introduction, where he is shown to be cold and uncaring by firing an employee over a single mistake—even though she had worked for him years. His employee tells him about all the hardships she’s facing in life, while Wallace only attempts to steer back the conversation to his intention to fire her. The woman has no idea what he has planned, and for a while Wallace’s interjections could be mistaken for niceties. Wallace and his employee are having two entirely different conversations, and it is only through the insight we are given into Wallace’s thoughts that we understand what’s about to happen. This type of clever writing and anticipation for the inevitable continue throughout the novel, which made me keep turning pages – straight until the last one.
Not only the writing style kept me engaged while reading, but also the comfort of ‘being’ at Charon’s Crossing. Of course, initially Wallace wouldn’t agree with me. He’s so out of place there that he isn’t even allowed the usual armour of his expensive suits. Instead, he’s forced to spend his time in a T-shirt, sweatpants, and flipflops. One piece of Charon’s Crossing homely décor is a sign that reads:
“The first time you share tea, you are a stranger.
The second time you share tea, you are an honoured guest.
The third time you share tea, you become family.” (44)
The first cup of tea surprises Wallace; it tastes like the warmth of a fond childhood memory. Although he is openly welcomed, Wallace is still a stranger in the boisterous tea shop, spending his days hiding in the kitchen. And we, the readers, are also strangers to the teashop, having barely spent a few pages there. Slowly, hiding in the kitchen turns into late-night talks with Hugo on the porch, hidden behind the tea bushes underneath a sting of fairy lights. His second cup is shared with Hugo, hunched over a steaming bitter brew that leaves a soft aftertaste, lingering like honey. Even Wallace notices that irony. And the last cup of tea, a cup that “smells like home,” (325) is shared between Hugo, Nelson, Mei, and Wallace. Family. And through the passage of warm scone-scented days and quiet evenings by the fireplace, we, the readers, become part of that too.
The story is driven by the introduction and variety of new characters, and it is through them that Wallace’s growth becomes apparent. Wallace — who comes to Charon’s Crossing angrily calling his death an “awful inconvenience,” (49) and spewing threats of formal complaints and managerial interference — learns to employ his newfound empathetic skills to advise and calm down a new and furious deceased guest of the tea shop. It is only when Wallace pulls a prank on a disliked customer that he truly laughs for the first time. Yet Wallace’s character growth becomes most apparent when you compare him to the Manager—the being who oversees the entire process of life and death. The Manager is introduced as a headstrong, order-focussed being who indifferently eliminates anything that upsets that order. It’s an indifference that makes him feared, that creates a looming sense of dread of what might happen to you if you upset his order. It is the same sense of dread Wallace’s employees felt. In the end, Wallace’s life-experience helps him understand the Manager better than the others ever did. Not only does he need his newfound empathy, insight, and kindness, he also profits from his past. He sees through the Manager’s bureaucracy, offers a new plan to help manage the afterlife, and is brought back to life as a result.
That ending brings about mixed feelings in me. On one hand, his resurrection means that Wallace and Hugo can have their happy ending. And we need more queer romances that end happy. We have had to deal with too many tragic queer tropes, like ‘bury your gays’, or being satisfied with some background character that’s supposed to count as queer representation. Coming from this history, having some positive stories can help us create a more hopeful outlook for the future. Yet it feels as if the happy romance goes against the overall theme of Under the Whispering Door. The book is cleverly interwoven with humour, but it also features a sometimes overwhelming sense of grief. The novel shows grief as both a catalyst and a transformation, a sense of grief for a life we could’ve lived; the realisation that we had so many more possibilities ahead of us than we ever thought, only to realise in the same breath that death has taken them all away (“Wallace suddenly found himself wishing for many impossible things” (228)).
This heart-breaking reality hangs between Wallace and Hugo as they fall in love and realise that they’ll never have a life together. Over the course of the book, they try to accept and move on from this grief too. And just as Wallace is ready and lets go…. he’s resurrected. No more moving on to the next stage of the journey, no more grief. He had accepted his end, said his goodbyes, and now, that acceptance isn’t needed anymore. In that sense, the plotline of grieving and moving on was accomplished but also undermined. Although it might not be the ending that I had expected while reading the book, I feel that it’s the happy ending we deserve. Klune leaves us with the promise of their future together, and the sense that things will be alright from here on.
Under the Whispering Door takes us on a beautiful yet heavy journey. The book is filled with insightful questions and comments about existence, which caused me to keep my notebook within reach the entire time. How could I read a line like “Wasn’t that the great answer to the mystery of life? To make the most of what you have while you have it, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly” (310), and not write it down? Yet out of all the lines I penned down, Wallace’s (after)life and journey are best captured in a quote of three simple words: “He learned kindness” (303). The book might have centred around Wallace’s journey, but it also leaves us readers with an important question: “What will you do with the time you have left?” (276). Wallace answered it, Hugo and Mei answered it, and now how will you?
Tara Huisman is a graduate student of Media Studies where she focuses on film and game research. In her research, she often looks at the way storytelling contributes to social activism. She works for the journal Junctions, where she has just taken on the role of Managing Editor. She is part of the LGBTQ community.
- Klune, TJ. How to be a Normal Person. Dreamspinner Press, 2015.
- —. Murmuration. Dreamspinner Press, 2016.
- —. The Extraordinaries. Tor Books, 2020.
- —. The House in the Cerulean Sea. Tor Books, 2020.
- —. Under the Whispering Door. Tor Books, 2021.