The Bittersweet Hug of TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door

Those who’ve read Klune’s other works know that his stories are full of heart. His latest work, Under the Whispering Door, also has heart, but differs from his previous works; it’s a story about grief, a tale suffused with love but also tinged with sadness.

That’s not to say the story is a tragic one. It’s still uplifting, but it hurts at times, the very definition of bittersweet. Those coming to the story expecting something similar to his last adult novel, The House in the Cerulean Sea, will find something different here. Where Cerulean Sea is like a friend giving you a warm fuzzy hug, Under the Whispering Door is a friend hugging you while you’re in the middle of a cathartic cry.

In Under the Whispering Door, we follow Wallace Price, a Scrooge-like character who starts out as a lawyer with no empathy and little concern for others. It’s not really a spoiler to share that Wallace is dead by the second chapter. It’s his journey after his death that is the core of the story. Wallace meets a reaper named Mei at his funeral, and she takes him to his ferryman, a young fellow named Hugo who runs a tea shop in a curious building far from where Wallace lived.

The recently deceased Wallace doesn’t just meet Hugo and Mei, who are two very much alive human beings who happen to have some magical abilities. He also meets Hugo’s deceased grandfather, Nelson, and Hugo’s dead dog, Apollo. Wallace, being the cold-hearted lawyer he was when he died, has trouble coming to terms with his death. Through the guidance of Hugo and the rest of the residents of the tea shop, however, Wallace realizes the way he lived was not how he wants to be in the afterlife. His heart opens up, and through his transformation, the story explores not only grief but the grace that can come by reflecting on one’s life and changing for the better.

From a plot perspective, the story is a slow-moving one. The tension comes from knowing Wallace will inevitably have to face the door on the top floor of the tea shop that takes souls to whatever is next. There is also everyone’s fear of the Manager, a cosmic entity who enforces the rules of the afterlife. And there are also other souls who come to the tea shop — the deceased who Hugo must guide in death, and the living who are still grieving those they’ve lost.

Grief isn’t something you push your way through—it’s something that becomes part of you, a knot that your heart eventually grows around. Under the Whispering Door is an exploration of that grief and how, through that pain, you can also celebrate life and love and human connection.

Under the Whispering Door is also a story of love. It’s clear early on that Wallace and Hugo have a connection beyond the usual dead soul-ferryman relationship. And in the end, the sweet is much stronger than the bitter in this story. Klune once again plucks at our heartstrings, and our souls are better for it.

Under the Whispering Door is available from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt here.

Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.

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