Book Content Warnings: death, grief, terminal illness, suicide, violence
Article Content Warnings: grief
“We live and we breathe. We die, and we still feel like breathing. It’s not always the big deaths either. There are little deaths, because that’s what grief is.”-TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door
An adult fantasy novel with LGBT main characters and a paranormal/undead element?
This premise is what author TJ Klune’s readers gushed over when reading his 2020 release The House in the Cerulean Sea, and it’s what they can expect again from his most recent publication hitting shelves this month, Under the Whispering Door.
In Under the Whispering Door, we are introduced to Wallace Price, an unlikeable narrator who is certainly not difficult to hate. He’s an entitled, unsympathetic lawyer, and an even worse boss who cares for no one but himself; as Klune describes him: “When he said jump, he expected those within earshot to do just that without asking inconsequential questions like how high?”
He has no friends, and his employees wish he were dead.
Unfortunately for Wallace, they get their wish.
Unsurprisingly, his funeral is “sparsely attended,” save for himself (as a ghost, naturally) and Mei, the overeager reaper waiting to whisk him away to…a tea shop.
There, he meets Hugo, a charismatic ferryman who promises to upend everything Wallace thought he knew about life and death: “He knew what it was. Knew what the word meant, but it was a nebulous thing, an event that occurred for other people far, far away. It’d never crossed Wallace’s mind that someone he knew could die.”
What transpires next is a fantastical love story between Hugo and Wallace. Wallace struggles to come to terms with grieving his own life, the art of moving on from your own earthly existence, while Hugo struggles to bury his past. As the two experience grief in very different ways at this time in their lives, Hugo inspires Wallace to open up about his feelings, revealing a vulnerability that’s shared between them.
The scenes with Wallace and Hugo in particular had my heart bursting with warmth. With them as the central couple of the novel, we explore the mysterious concept of the afterlife through the lens of a confused Wallace just realizing that he may not actually know everything.
This book surpassed my expectations, turning out to be wonderfully wholesome; Klune brings a melancholy tone to the subject of grief and death, evoking emotions of hopefulness and trepidation rather than sorrow.
Although the novel centers around themes of grief, death, the afterlife, and even suicide, these heavy subjects are approached within soft, comforting dialogue. Hugo, who has come to terms with “the process,” is a gentle voice of acceptance throughout the novel, almost a breath of fresh air with the simplistic terms in which he is able to coexist with mortality: “Day in and day out we’re surrounded by death. You either learn to live with it, or let it destroy you.” Hugo’s reassurances are sprinkled in during heavy conversations, which helped ease my existential anxiety about the heavy subject matter.
Through it all, Hugo holds Wallace’s hand literally and figuratively, especially after they learn that Wallace has limited time remaining in the tea shop before he must fully “cross over.”
All at once, Wallace is faced with a question so many are afraid to ponder: what will you do with the time you have left?
Klune is known for his ensemble casts of realistic, loveable characters who serve to draw investment into the story, and Under the Whispering Door was no exception: this novel is deeply character-driven, relying more on stand-out, vivid characters and realistic dialogue to move the plot rather than heavy exposition. This style definitely worked for me, particularly when I was listening to the audiobook version which had multiple narrators, each with distinct voices.
What’s more, each character in the secluded purgatory of the teashop was entirely unique and believable, complete with a full backstory shared between one another, effectively establishing trust between the characters through their shared trauma.
This established trust between the characters allowed for the complex subjects of death and grieving to be approached more casually between them, rather than as a larger, scarier objective concept.
While my experience reading Klune’s newest hard-hitting release was one akin to an enjoyable emotional rollercoaster, I must give this the same rating as last year’s release: ⅘ stars.
Klune perpetually toes the careful line between utterly depressing and blissfully hopeful when illustrating the pain of grief, establishing a melancholy integrity that is difficult to achieve in novels that center so heavily around death. That being said, although I do recognize this is a fantasy novel, I felt that at times Klune seemed to refer to convenient cliches in order to preserve this melancholy integrity. Ultimately, the convenience and overall cheesiness of the plot development (particularly towards the end) altered my reading experience to the point where it pulled me out of the emotion of the moment at times, and for that reason, I must deduct a star.
Nevertheless, I do urge you to pick this one up. However, it is emotionally heavy, and comes with a lot of trigger warnings, so proceed with caution.
That being said, if you were a fan of The House in the Cerulean Sea, I can almost guarantee you will not be disappointed with Klune’s latest fantastical love story.
TJ Klune is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling, Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Extraordinaries, and more. Being queer himself, Klune believes it’s important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive queer representation in stories.
Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune can be purchased here.