Book Review: Under the Whispering Door, T. J. Klune

Welcome to Charon’s Crossing.
The tea is hot, the scones are fresh and the dead are just passing through.

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own sparsely-attended funeral, Wallace is outraged. But he begins to suspect she’s right, and he is in fact dead. Then when Hugo, owner of a most peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace reluctantly accepts the truth.

“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.”

Another deliciously tender and sweet novel from T. J. Klune, author of The House In The Cerulean Sea, with many of the same pleasures – a remote and wonderfully Edenic setting, a found family, a male-male romance, the supernatural, and the courage to touch of some genuine themes.

Klune excels at humour in the real mundane world, both here and in Cerulean Sea. His opening chapter which reveals Wallace at his most curmudgeonly, heartlessly sacking an employee and withdrawing a scholarship from her daughter for good measure, was genuinely laugh-out-loud. Much to my wife’s disgruntlement as she was trying to sleep at the time! This chapter reminded me of Dickens’ Scrooge, refusing dinner with his nephew, scolding the portly gentlemen collecting for charity and generally terrorising Bob Cratchit – horrific yes, but with a deep satirical humour.

In fact, there are a lot of echoes of A Christmas Carol here: supernatural beings offering redemption to an isolated unlikeable man with an implicitly unlikeable job – where Scrooge was a money lender of some kind, Wallace was, even more despised, a lawyer. Perhaps it is only the time of year in which I read it, but those echoes were very clear to me. Unlike Scrooge, though, Wallace dies: to begin with. Right from the start. His funeral is Chapter Two!

Despite this, humour permeates the whole novel, making a story exploring death strangely amusing and wry. Some moments work well – Wallace’s funeral and his ex-wife’s speech which began

“Wallace Price was … certainly alive. And now he’s not. For the life of me, I can’t quite say that’s a terrible thing. He wasn’t a good person.”

Equally some of the humour fell a little flat for me – Wallace’s efforts to change his spectral attire which resulted in him wearing a “a striped bikini that left little to the imagination” and later “high heels better suited for an exotic dancer on a stage, making it rain”, for example, was a level of visual comedy that did not quite gel with the rest of the novel.

Also unlike Scrooge – who visits all of London, and pops out to sea too, in the past, present and future – Wallace becomes bound to a single location: Charon’s Crossing and its owner, Hugo the ferryman.

Turning to Hugo, he is, like Arthur Parnassus in Cerulean Sea, a character that Klune does so well: the saintly empathetic heart of the novel. Saintly, but he presentation never quite became sentimental, never losing his humanity and weaknesses and frustrations. Hugo, like the best of us, despite extraordinary kindness and patience, does lose his temper and suffer panic attacks, needing to recentre himself in his garden or looking at the stars or roaring away on a motorbike. As a ferryman, on top of running the teashop – it is a literal teashop, not a metaphor – his job is to help dead souls pass through the door. A literal and symbolic door in the ceiling, which leads into the afterlife. Assisted by his Reaper, Mei, Hugo never forces, never compels the passing but allows and facilitates it with an (almost) infinite patience.

Mei was also a genuine delight as a character, bubbly and effervescent and so full of life and love – who introduces herself with,

“I’m your Reaper, here to take you where you belong.” And then, as if the moment wasn’t strange enough, she made jazz hands. “Ta-da.”

Through her, Klune showed the importance of touch and physical contact: however close Wallace became to Hugo emotionally, as a ghost he was unable to physically touch him – is there not a poignant moment in The Aeneid where Aeneas enters Dis as a living person and is unable to hug his father, Anchises? – and Mei is brought out as a surrogate to deliver and receive hugs between people. Not to mention the effort Wallace puts into being able to touch and move objects. Do we really exist in the world if we cannot feel it and physically interact with it?

In fact, all of the supporting characters were great: Nelson and Apollo, the resident ghosts and Hugo’s grandfather and support dog; the medium Desdemona, the grieving Nancy, even the flirting girls. Whilst the middle of the novel felt a little unfocused and episodic, the final few chapters knit every strand together wonderfully satisfyingly. And not without a few tears.

There were some aspects of this presentation of the afterlife that didn’t work quite so well: it felt rather bureaucratic as files popped into existence, roles were assigned following “interviews”, and everyone dreaded the visit by The Manager. A bit like Senior Leadership Team doing pop-in visits to lessons. I did like the depiction of The Manager – the deer imagery reminded me of something out of Studio Ghibli – but perhaps keeping the bureaucracy to the mundane world, where it can be mocked and satirised, rather than the afterworld?

However, Klune is really the master of stand-alone large-hearted quirky pleasure-reads. And, yes, as always with Klune, the representation is wonderful: Mei is an immigrant Asian, Hugo is Afro-Caribbean and gay, who suffers from panic attacks, Wallace is bisexual.

It is just a warm hug of a book, and just what I needed when I read it!

What I Liked

  • The humour, especially chapter one and two: it was hilariously awkward and uncomfortable, genuinely laugh out loud.
  • The quietness and simplicity of the Charon’s Crossing, where everyday rituals and routines became invested with a quiet dignity.
  • The relationship between Wallace and Hugo which was tender, sweet and delightful.
  • Mei and Hugo… and the characterisation generally of, well, everyone!
  • Representation.

What Could Have Been Different

  • Wallace’s conversion, redemption perhaps, was a little too speedy perhaps and the humour that came from his irascibility subsided rather quickly.
  • Could the depiction of the workings of the afterlife have been a little less bureaucratic?

Overall:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Page Count:

384 pages

Publisher:

Tor

Date:

28th October 2021

Available:

Amazon, Publisher

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