TJ Klune – 2021: Caution! Mild spoilers.
I recognize that I’m one of the last people on the planet to read this story; bear with me as I provide a very brief plot summary for the other three people who haven’t read it yet.
Wallace is a jerk. A dead jerk. Shepherded by a Reaper named Mei, Wallace makes a wayside stop on his journey to eternity, at a little tea shop run by Hugo Freeman.
This is more than a tea shop; Hugo is a Ferryman, helping people to cross from the land of the living to the land of the dead, but unlike the ferrymen of mythology, Hugo does not escort his fares on a boat; instead, he ushers them through a door from which whispers can be heard by those with ears to hear.
Whether the author meant to reference theological concepts or not, I found them in the story. My mildly Christian upbringing informing my views, I recognized an indifferent diety, a resurrected redeemer of the unredeemable, and even a Door, which is one way Jesus described himself in John’s gospel. There are hints of old gods and older religions, and likely some references to other faith traditions that I missed due to lack of knowledge of those traditions.
TJ Klune is a great builder of worlds; I was unsettled by how quickly I suspended disbelief and bought into the concept of a not-quite-afterlife populated by cranky dead lawyers, deceased grandparents with acerbic wit, and adorable dogs who are just as lively in death as they were in life. Even as tears streamed down my face during the last chapter and the epilogue (read beautifully by Kirt Graves, by the way – and that last name is some coincidence) I felt manipulated, but maybe my strong emotional reaction speaks to the skill with which Klune built his characters. Maybe.
As I read, I noted book’s similarity to Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea. Two very different men, surrounded by magic, fall in love as one of them is transformed into his best self. This isn’t a bad theme, but Under the Whispering Door was was – too much. I enjoyed Cerulean Sea more, maybe because I didn’t get so effortlessly sucked into that story, or maybe because I wasn’t comparing it to another book.
I want to rate this book at three stars based on my dismay at being so deeply submerged in the story, but that’s just silly. I was never bored, and obviously the story is very engaging. The narrator skillfully and pleasantly depicts each character. Four stars.