For some people, life starts at 40. For miserable, corporate manager Wallace Price, life started when he died. Better late than never.
TJ Klune’s new novel, Under the Whispering Door, takes his breezy fantasy stylings and tackles a love story beyond the grave. When Wallace attends his own sparsely attended funeral, he meets Mei—a reaper tasked with helping him take the next steps in his afterlife—who brings him to Charon’s Crossing Tea House to meet its young Ferryman, Hugo. Will Wallace come to terms with his sudden death and choose to step through the titular doorway with Hugo’s help? Or will this stubborn, self-important man make life hell for those around him?
Coming to the book now, the specter of Covid-19 hangs over Under the Whispering Door, set almost entirely within a single house, where danger lurks outside its boundaries. But the setting never feels claustrophobic. Wallace’s journey is an internal one and those around him (including a fellow specter, Nelson, and Hugo’s deceased dog, Apollo) manage to push him in new directions.
Klune’s world is often filled with over-the-top characters (like the wannabe medium Desdemona), but each has a strong emotional core. The affection between Wallace and Hugo is touching and well presented, even if seemingly doomed from the start (that tends to happen when one of you is dead), and the found family in the tea house form a compassionate and feisty unit.
However it is a side character that packs the most unexpected punch, the “husk” Cameron. Having rejected the Whispering Door, Cameron wanders the exterior, slowly turning into a mindless spiritual zombie—a lost soul—a warning of what will happen to Wallace if he tries to run away. It’s a chance encounter with Wallace that turns the book on its head. When I thought I had predicted the book’s finale, it introduced a stronger thread that turned it from an entertaining read, to an enthralling one.
For a romantic comedy, Under the Whispering Door deals with some very heavy material, with themes of death—obviously—along with homophobia and suicide all handled with a sensitive touch. One minor quibble is that the book doesn’t know when to call it quits, with the epilogue running long, diluting the impact of the ending.
Under the Whispering Door manages to examine the world of grief with humour and heart, turning a seemingly whimsical novel into something more substantial.
Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune is published September 21st 2021.