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Reading Log: Passage by Connie Willis


I've read three ooks by Willis before, and loved them all. While I enjoyed Passage, I didn't find it nearly as compelling as Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, or Bellwether. This may be one of the more "science fictiony" books of hers that I've read, although Bellwether was fairly grounded in science (maybe "not-science" as Andy would say, but it sounded good to me).

Passage is about near death experiences, or NDEs. Dr. Joanna Lander is a psychologist interested in what happens in a person's mind in an NDE; she meets Dr. Richard Wright, who is a neurologist interested in the physical brain activity of an NDE. Together, they work with volunteers to simulate an NDE, then try to figure out what was happening, both psychically and biologically (and before you go where my mind naturally went, yes, Willis is very much aware of Flatliners, and makes sure that Joanna explains why this isn't like that movie). Of course, the hospital comes with its own resident quack, Dr. Maurice Mandrake, whose less than sound interviewing principles have led him to the "discovery" that a NDE experience leads one to the light at the end of the tunnel where the person will be welcomed with open arms of angels and loved ones, and generally told to return to their lives.

But the story is also about life. Joanna's best friend is a nurse in the ER who faces death and danger every day, yet still carries on with a smile. Joanna also visits Maisie Nellis, a first-ish-grader with cardiomyopathy and a very poor prognosis but a very sound head on her shoulders, as well as Coma Carl Aspinell. Later in the book, she finds her high school English teacher, Mr. Briarly, now with Alzheimer's, and becomes friends with his niece/caretaker, Kit. Each of Joanna's relationships highlights another piece of life and living, of carrying on when one doesn't really feel like it.

Even if I believed that Dr. Wright could really reproduce an NDE, I'm not at all sure that I believe Joanna's experience. Maybe what she ultimately discovered about the NDE, but getting there was a little bit tedious. I won't reveal the answers here, but I will say that John, you might enjoy the book for a very specific plot device in it. And while the story definitely has a dramatic climax, I'm not sure the blurb on the back is exactly true when it says that "a shattering scenario . . . will keep you feverishly reading until the final climactic page." The last couple of chapters are more of a wrap-up than a climax. But an interesting read, nonetheless.