Book Review: “Under the Whispering Door”


“The first time you share tea, you are a stranger. The second time you share tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share tea, you become family.”

Charming, heartwarming, and vividly compassionate, Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune is a whimsical meditation on life, love, and grief that, while heavily philosophical, remains a simplistic and intimate story for readers of all skill levels to enjoy.

Under the Whispering Door follows Wallace Price, a cutthroat lawyer and bureaucrat, on a journey of self-discovery that takes place entirely after death. After Wallace suffers a heart attack and no one attends his funeral, he is forced to reckon with the realization that the life he’d lived was hollow, empty, and unfulfilling. He had no loved ones that he did not drive away and no friends to remember him fondly. But when Wallace is taken to the “next step” in his journey, a waystation-esque place called Charon’s Crossing, he is at last given the space to understand himself and his potential amongst other ghostly inhabitants, a reaper, and the ferryman who will someday help him cross into the afterlife.

Throughout Wallace’s time at Charon’s Crossing, a metaphysical tea shop, he learns to be kind, to accept love from others and give it in return, and that the barriers that separate us in life are often arbitrary—with all those barriers stripped away, only in death has he been able to truly live. This novel endorses the idea that family can be found anywhere, regardless of the circumstances, as Wallace grows to think of the reaper, the other ghosts, and the ferryman, Hugo, as his own family.

Each character in the story represents a different approach-slash-reaction to death. For Wallace, death is transformatory—it enables him to change, develop, and grow as he is freed from the rigidity of his former life. Mei, the reaper, is cheerful and warm, and represents death as something that can be helpful and even kind, a balm for suffering. The fellow ghosts at the tea shop represent how death can cling to people and stall them in place, both positively and negatively. The Manager, a godlike character who serves as a bureaucratic foil to Wallace, represents death as final, absolute, and nonnegotiable, even callous at times. Hugo, the ferryman, is the easiest to conflate with traditional depictions of death; in Greek mythology, the ferryman of the underworld, Charon, is responsible for shepherding people across the boundary rivers that separate the realms of the living from the dead, and so occupies a liminal existence defined by both realms. Likewise, Hugo maintains the tea shop and is responsible for helping people come to terms with their lives—and deaths—and then escorting them across the “rivers” when they are ready.

In this story, the mythical Grecian rivers are instead a door, as implied by the title. The door represents the great beyond, whatever comes after, and no character in the novel quite knows what lies on the other side. This lends itself to the book’s exploration of death as fundamentally unknowable, and coming to terms with this lack of understanding is essential to the growth of the characters.

Fundamentally, this story is a happy one, and it is made so by its acceptance of sadness. Wallace’s time at the tea shop is made meaningful because it will eventually come to an end. His romance with Hugo is carefully, gently built up throughout the course of the story, a delicate effort from TJ Klune to slowly steep the narrative in implicit queer love that comes to fruition excellently by the denouement. Each character offers new and interesting perspectives on the nature of life and death that add to the final picture, and encourages readers to contribute their own opinions to color their understanding of the novel’s themes.

A narrative brought to life under the caring, attentive hand of its author, Under the Whispering Door is certain to appeal to readers of all ages with its tender, whimsical atmosphere, lovable characters, beautiful prose, and full acknowledgment of harsh truths even as it steers, unrelentingly, towards a soft and hopeful conclusion.

Categories: Entertainment, Opinion

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