Disappointing, overall, as a fantasy novel.
TJ Klune is an award-winning author and several of his books have made The New York Times best seller list. As part of LGTBQIA+ community, he is quoted as saying it is important to have positive queer representations in fiction.
Wallace only has time for business, and he has no compassion or empathy for anyone, but still believes he is living a good life. Like many overly ambitious and driven men, he dies suddenly of a heart attack but refuses to accept the fact. It is only at his funeral—where he hears what his ex-wife and partners really thought of him— and where a young woman appears to guide him to the afterlife, that he accepts he is dead. However, he also believes that doesn’t mean he can’t carry on the way he has always done.
There is quite a bit of borrowing from Greek mythology in this notion of being guided to the afterlife, such as the tea shop called Charon’s Crossing. The fantasy gets going when Wallace arrives at the most bizarre four storey tea shop run by Hugo, who is alive and describes himself as a ferryman. In sharp contrast to Wallace, Hugo is kindness and compassion itself. He instinctively knows what sort of tea will best aid those who are passing through on their journey to the other side. The other main characters are Mei, the reaper who collected Wallace; Nelson, Hugo’s dead grandfather who provides comic relief; his dead dog Apollo; and The Manager. Other travellers, both dead and alive, come and go through the tea shop but are peripheral to the main narrative.
I was disappointed by the stereotypical nature of many of the characters. Grandad Nelson, a ghost, just hangs about to play pranks and make life difficult for others. The Manager, although not what I expected in terms of physical appearance, is stereotypical of that type of person being selfish and self-absorbed.
The book has a lot to say about grief and acceptance, even citing the work of the late psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on death and dying. Suffice to say, with no spoilers, Wallace learns a new way of looking at the world but he has to work very hard to achieve acceptance while this is complicated by his developing feelings for Hugo. The book is somewhat plodding for the first third but does pick up towards the end. The fantasy seems somewhat thin on the ground as well, with the internal life and world of the tea shop, its surroundings and events barely making a coherent vision of why they are all Under the Whispering Door.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily Glam Adelaide.
Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: September 2021