Sunday, December 31, 2006

Passage, by Connie Willis

Connie Willis
ISBN: 0-553-58051-5
Book #06-167

Dr. Joanna Lander's research project focuses on near-death experiences. Unfortunately for Joanna, the hospital where she works is home to a celebrity author whose specialty is also NDEs. Maurice Mandrake, however, is a quack whose subjects, carefully led by him, all "see" exactly the same things on the Other Side, including angels, life reviews, a tunnel with light at the end, dead relatives, and more. Joanna's mission is to get accounts of the experience from people as soon as possible afterward, before they've had a chance to confabulate with Mandrake and contaminate their stories.

When Joanna finds out that a new doctor on staff is looking for her to help him with his NDE research, she does everything she can to avoid him. But Richard Wright is no Maurice Mandrake. Richard has had success replicating NDEs with drugs, and he wants Joanna to help him prove that what patients remember of being revived after death is chemically induced. As Joanna helps Richard screen participants for his study, she encounters some truly memorable characters, particularly Maisie, a young girl who is awaiting a heart transplant. Maisie's fascination with all things disastrous is a touching transference of her fears about her own fate and her rebellion against her mother's relentless mantra of positive thinking.

Over the course of the study, Joanna becomes convinced that she almost understands the significance of the subjects' NDEs, particularly the deep dread they all seem to be trying not to acknowledge. Unable to put her finger on it, she herself becomes one of Richard's subjects. Her hypothesis leads her to track down her high school English teacher, only to find his mind ravaged by Alzheimer's. The professor's niece agrees to help Joanna track down the textbook that may be the missing piece of the puzzle. In the face of Richard's skepticism, Joanna closes in on the answer with the help of the most unlikely of subjects, including Mr. Wojakowski, whose accounts of his adventures in WWII may or may not be true; Coma Carl, who has been unconscious for months but occasionally speaks in his "sleep;" Vielle, her nurse friend who works in the hospital's emergency room and who shares Joanna's love of movies in their weekly Dish Nights, and even her former teacher, whose seemingly random comments are actually lucid answers to questions posed hours or even days earlier.

PASSAGE is a fat, satisfying read, suffused with a sense of urgency and full of emotional resonance. Willis manages her multiple plot lines with all the finesse of the finest jugglers, hurling information at readers faster and more fiercely, building dread and anticipation as events hurtle toward a climax of epic proportions. Willis milks circus and disaster analogies with aplomb, keeping readers on the edge of their figurative seats as first one character and then another faces death-defying challenges. Details of several historic tragedies underscore the tension of the plot, and make for an interesting blend of fact and fiction. Each chapter begins with a quote of some famous person's last words, which is a nice touch. PASSAGE is a truly memorable book by a gifted author.

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