by Sahana C.
Loss is not an easy subject matter. The nuances of grief and grieving, mixed with the general sense of well-what-comes-next is hard to grapple with. And yet somehow, in Under the Whispering Door, TJ Klune has delivered another gentle reminder to readers that the best way to endure, survive, and eventually thrive through hardship is by finding your people, letting them help you and love you, and helping and loving them in return.
Folks who know the author’s work after reading The House in the Cerulean Sea might be surprised, at first, by the level of angst present at the outset of this book. After all, if Cerulean Sea could tout the Antichrist as one of its main characters and still feel light, fluffy, and comforting, surely this novel about dead people can’t be that deep.
Apparently, it can though.
Most of that is due to the fact that Wallace Price, the main character, is simply obnoxious and unpleasant at the beginning. He is so unlikable in the very first chapter, so out of touch, that I wasn’t sure I wanted redemption for him. He got what he deserved, dying at the end of the first chapter. This is not a spoiler, the man is dead throughout the book. The main character is, in fact, a ghost-or-something the whole time. A fun time is had by all, except Wallace, when he dies.
Seeing the other characters humor him and tease him was a relief because he was just so darn unpleasant that I didn’t much care how he’s feeling about being dead. Until, suddenly, I did. Without my knowledge or consent, I suddenly cared about Wallace, and that is precisely the magic that TJ Klune makes. He sneaks these strange characters on readers, makes it very clear that the characters are mostly a menace to society and not very good at being people, and then gently, steadily, these characters are shown how to be good people, how to care about others, how to crave belonging like they never have before.
There is a tenderness with which Wallace is treated by Hugo, a man who is very important in Wallace’s undeath. Equally important are Mei, the Reaper who comes to collect Wallace’s soul-or-equivalent, Nelson, Hugo’s boisterous and larger than life grandfather, and Apollo, the dog.
Difficult scenes force readers to confront loss in a very real way, and they are masterfully interspersed with incredible levity. Things like Wallace suddenly remembering he’s dead and sinking through the floor as the rest of the group does nothing to help but laugh are both incredibly funny and also the moments that Wallace is learning the most. The sad parts are to be expected, but as Wallace himself begins to use as a mantra: the real lesson is in unexpecting.
This is a character driven novel, of course, because when considering something as deeply personal as loss, one must return to the people that are experiencing the emotion. The way that Klune uses all of the characters to fill in any gaps in Wallace’s story, but also allows them to have their own back stories, personalities, and flaws without detracting from Wallace’s growth, is a delicate balancing act that Klune has down to a science.
Ryka Aoki, author of Light from Uncommon Stars , described the book beautifully, saying, “There is so much to enjoy in Under the Whispering Door, but what I cherish the most is its compassion for the little things―a touch, a glance, a precious piece of dialogue―healing me, telling me that for all the strangenesses I hold, I am valued, valid―and maybe even worthy of love.”
This book is about healing and holding yourself accountable. It’s about always having more to learn, but having to be willing to learn it. It does not force, but gently asks a reader to consider, Am I happy? Am I doing what I want, surrounded by the people I love? What do I have to do to get there?
And most of all, whatever you expect to happen here, wherever you think the story is going to go, unexpect it. Wallace was right. It’ll get you there faster.
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.