Faith and death for the nonreligious

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I need some comfort about death and dying, but I no longer believe in a God preached by a mainstream religion.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 390

Publisher: Tor Books

ARC provided by NetGalley

Optimistic fantasy

From the publisher: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead. And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead.

When I was eleven and afraid of death, I read C.S. Lewis’s The Final Battle, and that gave me a positive way to look at death. Now, almost fifty years later, I no longer have the faith of that preteen, but TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door has given me a comforting book about death and dying which is just as much about how to live, and it is comforting even though I no longer believe in a hereafter.

There are little deaths, because that’s what grief is.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Klune’s vast gift for empathy and kindness infuses his books with an optimism that does not overlook the pains and perils of life; rather, Klune celebrates the possibilities of change and growth within clearly flawed people, and he’s fast becoming one of my favorite authors. In Under the Whispering Door, Wallace, the protagonist, starts as one of those people you love to hate: a workaholic unmotivated by even the slightest degree of concern for his fellow man (or woman)—the worst kind of lawyer. While the losses in life were insufficient for him to make any changes, the loss of control in death makes him face what kind of person he was.

All that work, all that he’d done, the life he’d built. Had it mattered? What had been the point of anything?

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Don’t get me wrong; there’s no unrealistic, cloyingly sweet arc here. It’s all very grounded in the real world, and there’s a lot of pain felt by various characters that can be achingly familiar. However, it’s a hopeful world, where change is still possible, a wonderful vision in our increasingly polarized society. Part of what makes it work is Hugo, the ferryman, an empathetic soul, paired with an irascible grandfather, so they complement each other nicely, as well as the spunky Mei, who does not suffer fools.

Every time Wallace opened his mouth to say something, anything, he stopped himself. It all felt…trivial. Unimportant. And so he said nothing at all, wondering why he felt the constant need to fill the quiet.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Then there’s the view of death and dying itself. While I’m clearly not saying anything Klune propounds in his fantasy is literally true, the ideas behind them often resonate with me, providing a lot of comfort. I particularly like the view of faith, which has nothing to do with the kind of faith preached to me for years, but a more accessible faith that reflects experience.

There’s no one way to go about this, no uniform rules that can be applied to every single person like you who comes through my doors. That wouldn’t make sense because you’re not like everyone else, much like they’re not you.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

And, of course, it’s just a damn good story, with love, loss, and longing (hmm—didn’t plan on alliteration, but I’m going to leave it) all written in lucid prose with a pace that made me want to keep reading even when I had other things to do.

Whoever told you that you were funny obviously lied and you should feel bad about it.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

TJ Klune is a master of the optimistic fantasy, but never in ways I expect it to be, and never in contexts where I expect optimism, and it’s a gift to every reader, and Under the Whispering Door is a book I expect to reread many times.

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