Wallace Price is a dick, a calculating, ruthless, yet brilliant lawyer, A partner at his law firm, Wallace Price is otherwise friendless, joyless, and utterly without compassion, not even for his former wife whom he so carelessly ignored in favor of his job until she couldn’t take it anymore and divorced him.
In T. J. Klune’s brilliant novel, Under the Whispering Door, all of Wallace’s faults are on display, but rather than be embarrassed by them, Wallace brandishes them like a sword of victory, smiling (sardonically, of course) upon them as if they were his birth rite, that is until a heart attack claims him and a Reaper, Mei, does the same, coming to collect his soul at his sparsely attended funeral and taking him to Charon’s Crossing, ostensibly a tea shop but more of a weigh station where recently departed souls get some much needed prep, along with three cups of specially made tea, before crossing to the other side.
If some of this sounds familiar, that’s because the ferryman premise is pulled directly from Greek mythology. Charon, the ferryman from hell (Hades) was tasked with carting the souls of the dead across the River Styx (Acheron) to their ultimate resting place. Relatives of the dead placed a coin in their loved ones’ mouths prior to burial so they could pay the fare, and if you didn’t have the coin, you were destined to walk the shores for a hundred years (purgatory, perhaps?). In Under the Whispering Door, the job of ferryman falls to Hugo Freeman, a young black man who has been a ferryman since his own parents died, and like Mei, he sees dead people. Hugo and Mei live with Hugo’s dead grandfather, Nelson, and Nelson’s dead dog, Apollo at Charon’s Crossing, a tea shop that serves living people tea and scones while also helping dead souls cross over into the afterlife.
There are other colorful characters filling these pages — not just colorful character traits but people of color and diverse sexual orientation which was one of the best parts of this book: the way Klune paints diversity as a backdrop to life, never front and center or something worthy of controversy, anger, or any of the other emotions that so often intrude on LGBTQ conversations, but as an essential part of life’s fabric and in the same way nature Herself expresses diversity — effortlessly and without judgment or rancor. While the characters sometimes discuss queer issues, it’s not supercharged the way living people discuss those same issues; rather the message is we should all just get on with living our lives the way each of us wants to; the rest is no one else’s damn business.
I refuse to spoil this tremendous read by giving away any more plot points. I will say that I was often moved to tears, and more often laughing out loud. Under the Whispering Door is a mesmerizing work, a treatise on living and dying. Granted you’ll still be left with questions about what’s on the other side — Klune doesn’t go there because how could he? he’s still alive — but he does leave you with a sense of joy and relief that you may not have had before you picked up the book. I will definitely read this book again. In-joy.