Passage by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of science fiction’s most inventive authors.  Her novel Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and she has continued to turn out critically acclaimed novels such as Lincoln’s Dreams and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Her latest effort, however, surpasses all expectations.  Tackling the controversial topic of near-death experiences, Passage explores the human mind and soul.

Dr. Joanna Lander researches such NDEs, but finds her work hampered.  The hospital’s biggest sponsor funds her research on the condition that Dr. Maurice Mandrake works there as well.  Mandrake writes popular books on the subject, with titles like Messages from the Other Side.

Predictably, associating with him does not enhance Joanna’s credibility.

Fortunately, another doctor receives funding to work on the NDE’s scientific aspect, and Joanna subsequently teams with this Dr. Wright, hoping to find the experience’s physiological basis.  They duplicate NDEs with drugs and record the images described by patients.

When a lack of volunteers threatens the study, Joanna goes under herself; she sees not the classic tunnel and light, but something strangely familiar.

Joanna repeats the experiment several times, hoping to recognize where she is during the NDE.  Her attempts to make sense of the images lead to an old high school teacher, a little girl waiting for a life-saving heart transplant, and a comatose man.  Meanwhile, Dr. Wright draws closer and closer to the source of the NDEs, a cause that he hopes can teach doctors about the dying brain, and how to keep it alive.

And, just when this novel seems to tidily pull all its threads together, Willis springs the book’s biggest surprise on the reader, and turns the story into a breakneck race against time.

Novels like this are difficult to describe, because they’re so wonderfully complex.  One can only hope that someone options Passage for a movie, because this story could give The Sixth Sense a run for its money.  Every action and movement fleshes out the story’s climax.  You can look back and think “Wow, I should have seen this coming!”  Willis pulls the wool over our eyes by being so entertaining that all the clues slip right by.

Even so, the characters truly bring this story to life.  There’s Mr. Wojakowski, a war veteran participating in the NDE study; Vielle, an ER nurse and Joanna’s best friend; and most of all Maisie, a brave little girl hiding her fear of dying behind an obsession with disasters.  Willis makes us feel something for them–all of them–and for this reason the last 200 pages are an emotional roller coaster.

One last little treat: Willis opens chapters and book sections with quotes ranging from famous peoples’ last words to the space shuttle Challenger’s final transmission.  One section starts with a quote from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which perfectly describes the story: “Do you think death could possibly be a boat?”

Passage is this month’s best novel, and it provides a great introduction to Willis’s considerable storytelling skill.

This review was originally published on May 17, 2001.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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