Author: T.J. Klune
Title: Under the Whispering Door
I’ve heard a lot of good things about T.J. Klune’s books; when I saw this one on NG, I jumped at the opportunity to finally get acquainted with his writing. Alas, while the writing was smooth enough and well-meaning enough, Under the Whispering Door turned out to be a book not for me. I’m sure there are people who’ll enjoy this – not just more than I did, which is no big feat, but generally, in absolute terms, as a feel-good, “wholesome” novel.
I could probably finish my review here; then, words like “infantile” and “cloyingly sweet” wouldn’t have to be written. And I’m a bit tempted to do just that, because I don’t have a beef with this book; no uncontrollable growing and gnashing teeth while reading, no torn out hair – my reactions tended toward bafflement and growing dissatisfaction. Alas, I think I owe an explanation for this somewhat dismal rating. So, here it is.
Under the Whispering Door is a fantasy conglomerate of different tropes and themes and inspirations, from Dickens to studio Ghibli, from the found family trope to the treasure trove of New Age afterlife imagery. The main character, Wallace Price, is a stiff, overbearing, miserly and insensitive… curmudgeon, let’s call him nicely, on the verge of becoming even stiffer; he dies, you see, and that’s the beginning of his journey. It’s not Christmas, but rather March or thenabouts, but the influence of A Christmas Carol is undeniable. Faced with a total lack of grief from the handful of people who actually appeared at his funeral and with an angry outburst from his ex-wife over his casket, Wallace begins to realize he wasn’t a particularly nice person. Well, better late than never, but not to worry – he’ll have time to repent and find happiness, because death is a new beginning! Collected at said funeral by his personal Reaper, a person who’s supposed to ease the transition from life to death and help the poor souls on their road to afterlife, Wallace Price travels to a tea shop where he meets a Ferryman named Hugo. Yes, there are Reapers, Ferrypeople, and a Manager; almost-afterlife seems quite efficiently organized, with manila folders popping up out of thin air, with certain routines and guidelines in place (quite material, at that, with hooks), and rules of engagement. Apparently, even in death people require help, because death is traumatizing for the dying and the dead need therapy before they can happily float into the afterlife proper.
…It’s better not to ask questions, you can already see from the above paragraph that the setup doesn’t make sense; actually, I didn’t get the impression that sense or logic was in any way important to the author. The worldbuilding in Under the Whispering Door is mainly supposed to be cute and quirky, and for some it certainly will be. There is a house in the woods that’s made of four different houses sat one upon another in layers, like a cake, and at the top of the top floor there is a special door in the ceiling, leading up to the heavens. Quirky.
Also, dead people need to work through their trauma of dying, and need to come to terms with their new state of being (unbeing is not an option), and that’s why they need a team of coaches and therapists in the almost-afterlife. Quirky. Otherwise, they become horrible Husks and… actually, nothing; the Husks just hang around aimlessly, too afraid to pass on, and there’s a whole side plot dedicated to them, but it also doesn’t make any sense: it’s just there so that the main protagonist has something to do.
There is so much of writing by the numbers in the 2020s in this book. It’s not a bad thing, well done representation is something that’s always needed. But here, maybe apart from representation, it all seems token: love is obviously the conqueror of everything, the message that there are no bad people, just misunderstood people, is jammed down our throats at every turn, and the feel-good mushiness so sought after in the time of pandemic reaches new heights. To say nothing of the dog – there’s a ghost dog because it was so faithful in life that it decided to stay on after death. Aw, sweet!
Aand, there’s tea. Gallons of tea in different flavors. Don’t get me wrong, I love tea. I drink litres of the stuff every day. The problem is tokenism, merged with a really not nice whiff of smug superiority. Drinking loose leaf tea is apparently en vogue: tea seems everywhere these days, it dominates the genre. In self-respecting novels in the 2020s there’s no coffee, no fizzy drinks, not even water. There’s tea, and whoever drinks anything else, or, god forbid, doesn’t like tea (gasp!) is viewed as something less.
This form of tribalism may seem innocuous enough, I mean, nobody is going to fight over tea, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. This novel has more of those little moments of superiority, not just about tea but also personal beliefs. New Age spirituality goes hand in hand here with an anti-theist approach that is just jarring – the idea of a personified god is gently laughed at, a few times, as something slightly backward and unenlightened, but apparently there’s nothing wrong with joyous choirs, doors filled with bright unearthly light, a demigod/supernatural being that looks like it’s watched Princess Mononoke a few times too many, and a guarantee of personal happiness in heavenly afterlife up above. Shintoism has personified gods aplenty, so what’s the deal? Maybe it’s just me, but I struggle to see the difference. Why is one belief portrayed as better than the other?
As for the characters, there’s not much to write. They were there, period. Diverse, but not three-dimensional, they mostly seemed like props for the main protagonist (and oh boy, did he need them!). The plot, too, was severely underdeveloped, and a bit contradictory: death is only the beginning, so get to grips with your mortality, but actually… it’s better to get a second life, so cozy up to the Manager and show him you’re useful, like Thomas the Tank Engine. Unfortunately, I felt like the author spent most of his time and effort on whacking the readers over the head with his message rather than on thinking the whole thing through.
Under the Whispering Door is a mercifully quick read, and not entirely unpleasant. It’s heartfelt and warm, and if the warmth is suffocating and the sentimentality overbearing, this might be on me. I didn’t feel invested in the story, and maybe that’s why I had more time to pick it apart at the seams. Certainly, the tribal threads, however slight, were noticeable enough on the sweet superficially all-inclusive canvas that they pushed my reading experience from mildly entertaining to rather meh.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.