Book review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

(cover image courtesy Pac Macmillan Australia)

Having your heart ripped out of you and then placed back in again may not be at the top of everyone’s list of great things to do in your mortal waking hours.

But when you are reading the transcendentally affecting delight that is TJ Klune’s (The House in the Cerulean Sea) wondrous meditation on life after death, and the surprising amount of living that is to be done there, Under the Whispering Door, you quickly dispense with all other priorities and submit to having your entire body, soul and mind shredded, rebuilt and moved in their entirety over and over again.

Continuing the author’s themes of people bound by disaffection and isolation finding a home with diversely queer souls who together form a found family that nourishes, redeems and heals – if you’re a queer person, you will well understand why this resonates so intensely – Under the Whispering Door is a thousand kinds of beguilingly quirky wrapped over an oft-hilarious, emotionally evocative core that will move in some deep and endlessly abiding ways.

It kicks off from a brilliantly off-the-wall premise with Wallace finding himself at his own funeral, a sparsely attended at that since the man spent his days building a super-successful law firm to the exclusion of love, friendship and anything approaching a meaningfully selfless life, being collected by a Reaper called Mei who is insistent that Wallace is no longer alive and well.

A man accustomed to getting his own way and disdainful of unexpected twists and turns in life, he is shocked to discover that he may, in fact, be quite dead, something which is confirmed by a queer Ferryman named Hugo, a mortal man who operates a strangely wonderful tea shop in a small village who has dedicated his life to helping newly body-less souls find their way to the other side.

“Before he could speak, Hugo said, ‘Mei, could you finish up the prep work for tomorrow? Shouldn’t be much left. I got through most of it before you got back.’

She muttered more threats as she pushed by Hugo and headed through the double doors behind the counter. As the doors swung back and forth, Wallace could see what looked to be a large kitchen, the appliances steel, the floor covered in square tiles.

Hugo nodded toward a hallway at the back of the room. ‘Come on. You’ll like this, I think.’

Wallace doubted that immensely.” (PP. 73-74)

Quite what that looms like no one is quite sure, not even the imperiously intimidating cosmic being in charge of life after death, simply known as the Manager, but it is light and love and wonder and a perfect sense of belonging, all of which sing a consistently reassuring siren song of eternal possibility from under the eponymous door which sits on the fourth floor of the gloriously colourful, helter-skelter gravity-defying building in which the tea house is located.

Wallace, and this is quite understandable, is none too happy about being dead, or to be fair, even accepting he is dead at first, and makes his presence quite an unpleasant one for Mei , Hugo and some other wonderfully odd residents of the house whose introduction should be left to a reading of Under the Whispering Door.

He wasn’t nice in life, and death doesn’t look like being much different for the bisexual man whose life was littered with a failed marriage, resentful law firm partners, sullen ex-employees and nothing in the way of an actual life lived for others in any way, shape or form.

He wasn’t happy then and he sure isn’t happy now, and makes sure everyone knows that.

TJ Klune (image courtesy Goodreads)

Then something quite remarkable happens …

Wallace, under the patient care of Hugo and the quip-heavy hilarious boisterousness of Mei (who does NOT want her baked goods burnt, thank you) discovers who he really is underneath all the corrosive selfishness and brutalist self-aggrandisement, living more in death than he ever managed when he was alive and kicking.

So beautifully, exquisitely well does Klune does this most wondrously charming of tales that you will find yourself happily subsumed utterly and completely in a story of redemption and belonging that is the answer we all seek to the question of what on earth am I doing here?

Watching Wallace go from nastily self-centred and brokenly alone to selflessly warm and self-sacrificingly caring is an unmitigated joy, one which takes place with a ticking clock in the background as Wallace is given one week to make his peace with the end of his life and cross over to the other side.

So completely does Wallace change, and so close a member of his unexpected found family does he become that you mourn not so much his death, which turns out to be the making of him, but what will happen when he finally has to open the door on the top floor and cross to a life eternal.

Yes, it may be perfectly delightful in every day but it won’t have Mei, or the others, and especially not Hugo who comes to mean something altogether more than simply a Ferryman to convey Wallace to the next stage of his journey.

“Once the tea was finished, Wallace felt like he had only a moment before.

Except …

Except that wasn’t quite true, was it?

Because he’d had his third cup of tea. His gaze drifted to the Balti proverb hanging above the counter.

Stranger. Guest. Family.

He belonged to them now just as much as they belonged to him.” (P. 326)

Gorgeously funny, emotionally alive and vivaciously, exuberantly rich in its exploration of grief and loss and dealing with life, and of course, death, in all its surprising forms, Under the Whispering Door is a gem of a novel that captures your heart so completely that you will scarcely believe you existed before it.

It is especially poignant if you have experienced the cripplingly destructive effects of grief, which is, yes, a reassuring sign that you loved and were loved profoundly in return, because it does pretend for a moment that this is an easy road for anyone to walk.

Yes, Wallace is a man transformed, but his is not an easy or consequence-free journey, nor are those of anyone in the book, reflecting the author’s own descent into grief with Under the Whispering Door, says Klune, forcing him to “explore my own grief over losing someone I loved very much …”

The novel really hits home, outside of its sparklingly rich characters, its headily funny passages and sage observation on life, death and living, because it doesn’t sugarcoat a damn thing.

There is great happiness and hope and magical outcomes in Under the Whispering Door, so much so that you will feel your heart soar with the giddily uplifting possibility of it all, but before that there’s darkness, sadness and great pain and it’s the getting from the latter to the former that forms the very soul of this most beautiful and heartfelt of novels and which stays with you long after the last searingly moving page is reluctantly turned.

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