Review: Under the Whispering Door
cover from Amazon.com
T.J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door shows a whimsical multistoried multicolored building on the cover, visually suggesting it’s a sequel to the beloved The House on the Cerulean Sea, which won such acclaim. The latter book celebrated tolerance and difference as it taught a pencil-pusher to embrace a group of magical orphans and their varied powers. This book is not related to the other, but it shares the character arc and some of the appeal.
Wallace Price opens the book as a boss to rival Mr. Scrooge — he’s introduced firing a woman whose life is crumbling and only has her job to live for. By the end of chapter one, he’s died of a heart attack. Continuing to echo A Christmas Carol, the soul journey that follows is his real adventure. He’s picked up at his funeral, not by an ancient spirit, but by a young Asian woman on her first job. Mei, a Reaper, leads him to a teashop that also functions as a waystation to the beyond. It holds a whispering door, through which Wallace may pass when he is ready. In the meantime, he spends time with gentle, insightful Hugo, the shop owner. There’s also the ghost of Hugo’s loving dog (with interactions reminiscent of Disney or Pixar) and Hugo’s grandfather Nelson. Both dog and grandfather are ghosts so bound by love for Hugo that they refuse to pass on. The author did his sensitivity research on the many multicultural characters, like Hugo’s Black family, and they appear both charming and delightfully proud of their backgrounds.
In this vein, Wallace surprises Hugo when he comments that not only was his wife sleeping with the hot gardener but “I probably would have done the same if I thought he was interested” (137). After this comment and his matching well with a strong mint tea that reminds him of his mother’s baking, Hugo notes that Wallace “contain[s] multitudes” (137). These moments of subverted expectations indeed surprise readers while also giving the character some depth.
In a twenty-first century post-organized-religion way, the book insists that God is imagined by humans. Instead, there’s the Manager, who has nearly infinite power over the afterlife, but chooses order over mercy. Hugo calls him “A guardian of the doors…A little god. One of the oldest beings in existence. Take your pick” (183). This of course serves to throw traditional theology into the background by replacing it with a new bureaucratic character.
As with Scrooge and the hero of Cerulean Sea, Wallace’s adventures with this madcap crew teach him to stick up for them and thus learn some compassion. Hugo and Wallace form an attachment, though it’s doomed because Wallace will soon be passing on. The author uses this and their inability to touch to give the story some poignancy and also model handicap accommodation.
There are hilarious moments when the characters trade insults, or Wallace tries imagining himself into changing clothes. In fact, as he finds himself in a bikini, ballet slippers, soccer cleats, and so on, the book emphasizes how much he’s uncertain in his own skin. The book balances the sweet, the kind, the funny, and the introspective to bring readers a book that helped the author through his own loss and may help readers do the same. Fun and thoughtful, with some of Cerulean’s charm.
Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of over 80 books on pop culture, including Hunting for Meaning in The Mandalorian; Inside the Captain Marvel Film; and Star Wars Meets the Eras of Feminism. Her Chelm for the Holidays (2019) was a PJ Library book, and now she’s the editor of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, publishing an academic series for Lexington Press. Once a lecturer at San Jose State University, she now teaches at Mission College and San Jose City College and speaks often at conferences. Come explore her research at www.vefrankel.com or https://www.amazon.com/Valerie-Estelle-Frankel/e/B004KMCLQK/