Beth's Reviews > Passage

Passage by Connie Willis
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Aug 12, 11

bookshelves: fiction
Read in May, 2001

** spoiler alert ** "I must go in, the fog is rising." -- Emily Dickinson's last words

"Why, man, they couldn't hit an elephant at this dist--" -- American Civil War General John Sedgwick's last words, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse

"I beg your pardon, monsieur. I did not mean to do it." -- Marie Antoniette, after she had accidentally stepped on the executioner's foot while mounting the guillotine

"Oh, sh!t." -- Last words found on the majority of flight recorders recovered after plane crashes

"I shall hear in heaven." -- Beethoven's last words


Of the many well-researched and interesting details included in this novel, my favorite is that each new chapter starts out with a quote from a famous person near death. They range from the humorous to the heartbreaking to the ironic, and each suits the chapter it introduces perfectly. Each quote adds to the power of this novel to make the reader think. Think about what we avoid thinking and talking about often to absurd extremes, despite the fact that it is the one certainty in life, and what happens when we all make that final passage.

Passage by Connie Willis is not a morbid book, despite the subject matter, nor is it a horror story along the lines of Flatliners. It is a fascinating novel that explores the concept of near death experiences (NDEs). Are these phenomena spiritual events? Purely biological firings of a dying brain? Both? Or perhaps something else entirely? If you are interested in such musings, enjoy an intelligently written story and are open minded about what NDEs might mean, this book is excellent reading.

NDEs as science versus divine vision
Set in the present day, Dr. Joanna Lander is a psychologist studying NDEs by interviewing hospital patients who have recently "coded" or temporarily lost all vital signs. She is constantly trying to interview patients before a colleague at the same hospital, a Mr. Mandrake, can interview them. Mandrake does his best to manipulate the patients' memories of the NDE to fit his own doctrine of NDEs -- a trite vision aptly described by one character in the book as a heaven composed of Precious Moments figurines.

Joanna herself holds no firm beliefs of what NDEs are or represent, she only wants to get as close to the objective truth as possible. A new scientist at the hospital, Dr. Richard Wright, has discovered a way to chemically induce NDEs, and he asks Joanna to work with him. Richard believes his study will prove these phenomena to be strictly biological rather than spiritual. Problems finding enough suitable patients for the study eventually result in Joanna herself volunteering to take the simulated near death journey herself, and she finds herself caught up in a tantalizing puzzle...Is what she sees real? Or is it indeed only the random firings of the dying brain? (I will say no more for fear of ruining the story.)

Characters from the intriguingly complex to the annoyingly cardboard
Joanna is an admirable, likable and sympathetic character, as are Richard, Joanna's best friend Vielle (an ER nurse at the hospital), Masie (a young girl in need of a heart transplant with a fascination for disaster stories), and a host of other characters that become part of the story line. There are a couple of characters in contrast who are not developed at all, who are portrayed as 100 percent negative. The aptly named Mr. Mandrake and one of his converts are so relentlessly annoying that Joanna spends a significant amount of time in the novel attempting to avoid them. Their broken-record personalities got very tedious to read about after a while.

The editor should be given a good talking to
Probably the biggest fault of this book -- and the reason I cannot give it five stars despite so many strengths -- is the overly detailed accounts of Joanna's investigation and slow -- and I mean S L O W -- piecing together of clues that will lead her to a conclusion about the meaning of NDEs. While the realistic detailing of solving the mystery is admirable, Willis falters here by frustrating the reader for too long and loosing too much momentum. While I remained determined to read through and find out what would happen, I was very disappointed throughout a big chunk of the book. It does pick up again, and become even more compelling, but my resentment of those slow, plodding (and repetitive) chapters lingered.

Overall, a fascinating read, although not perfect
The story is intelligent, compelling, detailed (a bit too much at times), and as is often the case with Willis's novels, it includes a bit of romance as well. There are a few cardboard characters, but far more interesting ones. The descriptions of the world of near death experiences are often fascinating and moving. Willis also has a habit of reflecting the central theme of her story quite directly in the physical setting, and this book is no exception. The hospital where the majority of the story takes place is a convoluted maze of hallways and stairwells reminiscent of the complexity of the human brain. While there is a certain level of predictability through some of the story, there are many surprises, too. Overall this novel is a very good read, well worth plodding through the slower parts for, and a story that is not easily forgotten.

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