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Passage by Connie Willis

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Having exhausted her exploration of time travel in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, sci-fi maven Connie Willis takes on the equally complex subject of near-death experiences in the darkly humorous and thought-provoking Passage.

Willis polarizes the vast array of writing on the subject into two polarizing camps: the spiritual and the scientific.

Representing the former is Maurice Mandrake, a John Edward (the psychic, not the Senator) clone whose professional and financial stake is based solely on convincing people that the afterlife will be warm, safe, and inviting. By plying patients who claim to have had near-death experiences with leading questions and affirmations, Mandrake has made a sort of cottage industry of pop-psychology books and lectures on NDEs.

On the opposite side of spectrum is our hero, Joanna Lander, whose research into NDEs has been approached from a clinical, rationalist perspective. Joanna doesn’t buy into any of Mandrake’s nonsense; she’s instead convinced that NDEs are a biological phenomenon that can be explained through careful study and observation. Particularly confounding is the fact that many of her patients recollections of being aboard the Titanic in its last moments at sea during their NDEs clash with Mandrake’s idea of the warm, bright light as the universal near-death phenomenon.

Willis wastes no time with these opposing views. As readers, we’re asked to accept Joanna’s scientific explanation as the correct one and follow along in her quest.

The novel itself is well-written and quite funny, often juxtaposing the dark and depressing with the blithely humorous, a technique Willis has used in previous novels to similarly excellent effect. Running gags, sharp dialogue, and sympathetic characters punctuate the overall bleaker subject matter.

At a whopping 800 pages, Passage has more than enough time to explore all facets of its subject. Despite its length, the book reads quickly and well. However, many readers may be disappointed to find, at the end of this journey, a hackneyed and ultimately dissatisfying ending. Willis clearly intended to elevate the finale of the story to a metaphysical level, but the revelations presented in the final chapters only serve to undercut much of what has come before.

If one can overlook a slight disappointment at the end, Passage remains an engaging and worthwhile read.

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  • http://www.resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    I’ll have to check this out, I’ve mostly enjoyed Connie Willis’ books, and am grateful that she let me find out about Jerome K. Jerome with “To Say Nothing of the Dog” (which is a pastiche of “Three Men and a Boat”).

  • http://popzeist.blogspot.com ZMethos

    What I thought was a nice touch was the way each chapter opens with someone’s last words–some of the things people say right before they die are very strange indeed.

  • http://www.google.com Peaches

    This is an excellent book by Willis, and certainly her bravest. She takes incredible risks in this novel, and I applaud her for that.

    The reviewer was wrong–Willis hasn’t exhausted her time travel stories yet. Her next novel will return readers to her time travel world of mid-21st century Oxford. I can’t wait for it!

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    I’ve been a fan of Willis since her first book. I’m currently ‘read out’ — waiting for her to produce a new one. Ditto for Melissa Scott and Octavia Butler. Are those gals getting relaxed in middle age or something?

    I am not going to give the end away in consideration of people who haven’t read the book. (Scott, wisely, has avoided doing so.) But, some of the deaths, are, to say the least, frustrating. Willis isn’t afraid to break the rules of storytelling. So, buy the book, plop down somewhere comfortable and find yourself living inside of “Passages.” But, don’t get too comfy. You will be rocked.

  • Willis Conover

    A very enjoyable book. The reviewer though t the ending undercut Willis’s attempt to elevate the story to a metaphysical level; but I thought she did that very well.

    The last few chapters are ‘haunting’ – no pun intended; and the very end of the book points toward the metaphysical that the reviewer, for some reason, didn’t see.

  • John

    Here’s some plain speech: Passage is one of the finest books I’ve ever read. Brace yourself. Read it.

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