Book Reviews, Fantasy

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Welcome to Charon’s Crossing.
The tea is hot, the scones are fresh and the dead are just passing through.

When workaholic Wallace Price is collected by a reaper from his own funeral, he finally accepts that he really must be dead. But instead of being taken to the afterlife, Wallace is led far away to a peculiar tea shop in the woods. There he meets the curious locals along with Hugo, the shop owner who helps souls to cross over. But Wallace isn’t ready to leave his strange new home, not now he’s met the kind and charming Hugo and is just starting to feel alive. So when he’s given one week to pass on, Wallace resolves to use the time he has left to experience a lifetime in only seven days.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.

This was a charming and cozy read. I knew going into it that a lot of other readers had gotten quite emotional over it, and given the topic it’s easy to see why. There are many sad moments, but there are a lot of joyous moments as well. It begins with Wallace Price in the middle of firing a woman from his law firm for a small mistake she committed, and it’s generally quite an unpleasant introduction to a character, showing how little he cares for anything other than the success of his business. Which is why I didn’t particularly feel bad for him when the very next chapter finds him standing over his own body trying to comprehend how he might have died. I did feel quite sorry for him when he attends his own funeral, featuring a total of four people with nothing very good to say about him, but then a reaper called Mei shows up to guide him to his next step and the way he treats her made me dislike him all over again. TJ Klune has this wonderful way of imbuing his sentences with a certain type of humour, as if the narrator were nudging the reader and rolling their eyes at their protagonist, but in a benevolent way, and this was the perfect tone with which to start Wallace’s story, because I knew he would grow as a character and that I’d need to like him enough to root for him, but the narrator also had to acknowledge the bad place he starts in.

The main setting of the story is Charon’s Crossing tea house, on the edge of a town far away from the city, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the literal embodiment of a ray of sunshine, and when he’s not making tea for his customers, who he knows by name, he is helping the dead come to terms with their situation and helping them until they’re ready to pass on to the next phase. He is gentle but firm, full of humour but very capable of serious conversations, and extremely kind despite carrying his own grief. I, like Wallace, fell a little bit in love with Hugo, and for me the best part of Under the Whispering Door was watching the relationship develop between Hugo and Wallace; Hugo showing Wallace that there’s more to life than financial success and a career, and Wallace showing Hugo that he’s not alone in this hard job of his. I loved them.

I also loved the other residents of Charon’s Crossing: Mei the Reaper, a firecracker who loves to bake and listen to heavy metal, Hugo’s grandfather Nelson, who has remained in his ghost form without passing on for many years to stay by his grandson, and Hugo’s dog Apollo, also a ghost who has remained at the teashop. Nelson is incredibly funny, and I also enjoyed watching as he and Wallace become friends and he passes on his wisdom. The most intriguing character, though, was the Manager, the god-like character that oversees the reaping of souls and the one who appoints people like Mei and Hugo to do the job. I liked all the scenes he was in, and I liked the way such an ominous creature was referred to as ‘the Manager’, showing that even in death, you can have a tough boss.

Though a lot of the time the tone of this book was light-hearted, there were some heavy themes, and every character was dealing with loss of one kind or another, and grief is hard, especially when all of us will at some point have to come to terms with the death of those we love and, eventually, ourselves. I won’t say this book takes away fear of death, but reading it did give me some comfort about the mysteries of life and the loss of those I love, if only for a little while. Reading it felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket, with the perfect cup of tea, so if that’s what you need, Under the Whispering Door is there for you. I will also say that it reminded me a lot of The Good Place and, in some ways, the podcast Welcome to Nightvale, so make of that what you will!

Book Info

Published: 28th October 2021 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition)
Genre: fantasy, romance
Pages: 384
Narration style: third person, past tense
Format read: eARC
Content Warnings: grief, death, suicide

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