Review: “Under the Whispering Door” by T.J. Klune

Under the whispering door by TJ Klune book cover from goodreads, background forest mushroom image from unsplash by Igor Yemelianov
Original background cover photo credit: Igor Yemelianov on Unsplash

Patricia was crying.

Under the Whispering Door, Chapter 1 opening

Author: T.J. Klune
Publication Date: September 21st 2021
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Fantasy
Find it on: Goodreads

Synopsis

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

From Goodreads

Review

Book Content Warnings: suicide, infidelity, heart attack, cancer, racism, depression, anxiety, car accident, panic attacks, murder

Under the Whispering Door is an endearing magical realism fiction about life – and more emphatically – death. Brimming with warm friendships and lovely character growth to balance difficult topics, this book doesn’t shy away from confronting one of mankind’s most constant concerns. That is, what happens when we pass away? Under the Whispering Door approaches the question with a comforting fantasy story that enfolds readers in its easy prose and enchanting story.

The book first introduces main character Wallace, whom readers will initially find prickly and cold. Wallace is a callous high profile attorney who co-founded the law firm that dominates his waking hours. He has little patience for interpersonal matters and dedicates his entire being to his work, completely disregarding the gradual withering of his personal relationships. When Wallace unexpectedly passes at the end of chapter one (not a spoiler, mentioned in synopsis 😊), he’s startled to find himself in a kind of afterlife realm wherein he is a spectator in his former world. From there reaper Meiying steps in and whisks him away to meet ferryman Hugo, and the story continues to unfold. Wallace goes through stages of grief mourning his former life and confronting his regrets while readers witness his gradual character growth.

Character work is where this book truly shines. Although Wallace is a difficult character to love at first, he grows more sympathetic as the story goes on. It’s wonderful to watch him slowly become a better person and find deeper meaning to existence. There’s also a charming budding LGBTQ+ romance and warm found-family themes in the afterlife group that Wallace joins. In particular, Hugo the ferryman stands out as an incredibly kind character. He goes above and beyond to facilitate a smooth transition from life to death for the people that are routed his way. His sincerity and tender-heartedness balance the harsh front Wallace puts on when he first arrives.

Death isn’t a final ending, Wallace. It is an ending, sure, but only to prepare you for a new beginning.

Under the Whispering Door, p120

Beyond the serious themes and heavy emotions, there are also plenty of humorous moments to lighten the mood. Nelson, Hugo’s grandfather and extended afterlife resident, brings needed levity to the story when he pokes good-natured fun at Wallace – attempting to teach him how to interact with parts of the living world, and instructing him (vaguely) how to conceptualize his new form. There’s also a broad range of diversity across the spectrum to enjoy in this story. Characters shine in a variety of race, sexuality, age, and mental health categories as a start.

Under the Whispering Door was a book totally out of my normal reading wheelhouse, but I’m so glad I took a chance and picked it up. Far from being childish or cliche, this book had beautiful delivery of a meaningful and wholesome story. This is one that you’ll look back on fondly long after reading.

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