Under the Whispering Door
“Klune has a way of elevating life’s tender, beautifully ordinary moments to highlight how achingly special they actually are.”
Is there a more common question than “What’s the meaning of life?” Everyone from philosophers to young children have pondered it, but TJ Klune’s new novel, Under the Whispering Door, goes beyond that, literally, asking “What is the meaning of the afterlife?”—and it mostly succeeds in answering its own query.
The story delves into the death of one man, Wallace, and what comes next. In life, Wallace was not a very likeable man—he’s cantankerous, cold, and seems to only live to work—so when a reaper comes to collect his ghost from his sparsely attended funeral, he is unsurprisingly perturbed to be brought to a tea shop run by an eclectic and empathetic man named Hugo.
The shop serves as a way station for the newly departed to come to terms with their deaths before taking the next step to the mysterious beyond. Also in attendance at the shop are the reaper, Mei—not your typical hooded figure with a scythe but a sarcastic and passionate young woman—and Hugo’s grandfather and dog, both of whom happen to be ghosts.
Wallace is not happy with his new place of residence, and our first glimpse at his more human side comes when he aches after seeing children simply living their lives. Wallace’s anger at the unfairness of death also serves to humanize him, as it’s hard not to relate to someone who feels like their journey was cut short—almost everyone longs for more time. He doesn’t know what he wanted out of life, exactly, but he now recognizes that he wanted something more.
And yet, as the story seems to say, death is the great equalizer in its unfairness.
At one point, Wallace asks Nelson, Hugo’s grandfather, why he helps with the journeys, and Nelson simply says “Why wouldn’t I? It’s the right thing to do.” This seems to be a lightbulb moment for Wallace, who has rarely considered doing something kind for no reason.
And that’s the lesson the book seems to be trying to teach us: It’s never too late to start becoming a different person. The other characters exist to serve this growth, first as part of their job and eventually to support their friend, as Wallace grows to mean more to them than the typical client who passes through their shop.
Nelson provides most of the quiet humor of the book with his no-nonsense asides and ghost lessons, though his vulnerability and wisdom are also a treat for the reader.
But it’s between Hugo and Wallace where a deeper connection is formed. In some ways, the slow and hesitant growth of their relationship feels more romantic than the typical romance novel development. Their long-term prospects are bleak: One of them is a ghost. Wallace’s looming departure to the great beyond hangs over the story, both as a blockage to the budding romance but also as a threat to the good person Wallace is finally starting to become. And yet you can’t help but root for them.
The meandering pace of the book in the beginning lends itself to the subject matter—plot is not emphasized, but what’s the rush when you’ve got an entire afterlife to consider? Things pick up closer to the end though, as Wallace is given a deadline to move on and everyone begins to panic.
The book also gives an honest exploration of grief, both from the people who pass through the tea shop and also for those they leave behind. It doesn’t seek to fix the sadness that remains, just leaves space for it.
Though the book strives to be profound, it never quite hits the heights it’s aiming for. Instead, it is a quiet meditation on who we are in life and what living up to your potential and “success” truly means. As always, Klune has a way of elevating life’s tender, beautifully ordinary moments to highlight how achingly special they actually are.
Though the book trods well-worn ground, it does so in a meaningful and lovely way.