A Tunnel, A Light, A Door And Beyond It The Unimaginable.Dr Joanna Lander Is A Psychologist Specializing In Near Death Experiences She Is About To Get Help From A New Doctor With The Power To Give Her The Chance To Get As Close To Death As Anyone Can.A Brilliant Young Neurologist, Dr Richard Wright, Has Come Up With A Way To Manufacture The Near Death Experience Using A Psychoactive Drug Joanna S First NDE Is As Fascinating As She Imagined So Astounding That She Knows She Must Go Back, If Only To Find Out Why That Place Is So Hauntingly Familiar.But Each Time Joanna Goes Under, Her Sense Of Dread Begins To Grow, Because Part Of Her Already Knows Why The Experience Is So Familiar, And Why She Has Every Reason To Be Afraid.Yet Just When Joanna Thinks She Understands, She S In For The Biggest Surprise Of All A Shattering Scenario That Will Keep You Feverishly Reading Until The Final Climactic Page. This book is kind of a beautiful mess I can think of few other authors with the equal ability to drive me absolutely insane and keep me reading, usually with a lump in my throat This is my third Connie Willis novel To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of my favorite books of all time, a comedic farce wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a sci fi novel It is probably too long and a lot of the plot relies on misunderstandings, miscommunication, missed connections and narrative dead ends Doomsday Book is not one of my favorite books of all time, a tragedy wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a sci fi novel and haphazardly glued to a comedic farce turned maudlin It is definitely too long.Passage Passage is a something It has elements of comedy, but it isn t nearly as humorous as To Say Nothing of the Dog It is certainly tragic, but hardly the bleak death march of Doomsday Book It is arguably sci fi, but we re dealing with a fairly plausible on its own terms, at least medical exploration rather than, you know, time travel It is also definitely too long.But damn, all those pages pack a punch Not that there couldn t be about a third fewer of them.You know this if you have read Connie Willis before, but she has an unusual way of telling stories Basically, she plops us right into her characters brains, and give us access to their every thought Then she gives them a mystery to solve Instead of watching someone gather clues and track down a solution, we get to hear them endlessly natter on about what the solution might be, but no, it probably isn t, but maybe if oh, but no Sometimes, the character will search for hundreds of pages for a particular piece of evidence, thinking it might hold the solution to the whole shebang But it doesn t And almost always, that part could just be clipped right out, still leaving you with an entirely respectable 500 page novel Other times, the character is on the right track, if she could just manage to call a key person and not get a busy signal, answering machine, or unhelpful secretary.This undeniably irritating style worked for me in TSNotD and irked me to no end in Doomsday Book which definitely mashed the phones are wacky and unpredictable button into oblivion In Passage, it still kind of bugged me, but when you are unraveling the biggest mystery of all, I guess you are going to have to expect some wheel spinning Though it probably didn t need to be in the form of endless descriptions of the maze like interior of a hospital constantly under construction, or the repeated ramblings of a WWII veteran, or people constantly complaining about a cafeteria that is never open I mean, it s all lightly amusing, and filled with colorful supporting players, but good grief Is there an editor in the house But as I said, some of that is to be expected and at least some of it turns out to be thematically relevant Because the mystery Connie Willis is taking on here is death Technically, near death experiences what they are, what they mean But really, it s death The big question that no one will ever answer Willis certainly doesn t, not even in nearly 800 pages, but she gets so, so close to figuring out what death feels like, or what we imagine it will feel like, or want to hope for Both for the dying and those who must go on living afterward Somehow, she accomplishes this while offering several Wikipedia pages worth of detail on brain chemistry, famous last words, and the sinking of the Titanic The Titanic There s a subject that probably doesn t need another book, and yet it s still a fascinating, harrowing tragedy, meaningful in its meaninglessness, and the perfect centerpiece for a book about the struggle with mortality no, I m not going to explain how it fits into the plot The perfect metaphor, looming up suddenly out of nowhere in the middle of your maiden voyage, unseen until it is nearly upon you, unavoidable even when you try to swerve, unexpected even though there have been warnings all along As it is with icebergs, so too is it with car crashes and murders and heart attacks and cancer if only things had happened a little differently, disaster may have been averted But only for a little while Every ship eventually sinks.But hopefully not today. This book, about half way through, does something one may not do half way through a novel, and then continues, unabashed I adore it. Ugh I m sorry, Connie, I like what I ve read by you in the past, but I don t think this relationship can go any further You have some neat ideas, and granted, Doomsday Book was amazing, but dammitall, your writing style is just too unimodal for me Every single one of your books seems to be filled with this frantic energy of characters rushing around in a frenetic frenzy for several hundred pages after a while, it just gets tiring After the three books I ve finished, it s just gotten old.I liked your exploration of near death experiences, but it easily could ve been 300 pages shorter, and still just as effective Better luck next time, Connie, but for me, I don t think there will be a next time. The premise of this book is interesting Dr Joanna Lander, a psychologist, specializes in studying near death experiences She teams up with a neurologist, Dr Richard Wright which was really distracting for me because I kept thinking of the mid 20th century African American author this character is nothing like that Richard Wright who has developed a way to manufacture near death experiences NDEs using drugs When their volunteer test subjects all disappear for various reasons, Joanna decides to experience an NDE herself to keep the project going This is where the story gets interesting, and the fact that this doesn t get started until chapter 15 of 60 chapters , nearly 200 pages into the novel reveals one of the novel s chief flaws The novel is long Too long At 780 pages, this is one of the longest novels I ve read in a long while And while it was compelling for some reason and I really didn t want to stop reading, it was a bit repetitive at the beginning and the end Early in the book there are myriad mentions of the labyrinthine hospital complex and the fact that the hospital cafeteria is never open And the last third of the book is in large part watching Dr Wright and accomplices trying desperately to figure out what Joanna was trying to tell them, trying to figure out something the audience already knows It s a little frustrating The novel could definitely have used some editing to make it concise as well as approachable The fact that I had the time and inclination to read the book in a day doesn t mean that the average reader will be able to have this experience with the book If I d had to read it in installments over a longer period of time, I suspect I would have lost interest at than one point That issue aside, however, it is a good book, although I find it hard to say why, other than that the premise really did interest me and the chapter breaks were frequent enough to keep me reading into the next chapter to find out what would happen next It s not a book about character development, or experimental or beautiful language or structure It s a seriously plot driven book It wants to be a novel of ideas as well, but it doesn t quite succeed at that It has some interesting ideas, but the plot is ultimately central to the experience of reading Passage than the ideas are and I left the book with little of value to contemplate, aside from some confusion about how to interpret the final chapter Ultimately, Joanna and eventually Richard as well learns the purpose of the NDE It is not a portal to the Other Side where you will see your family members and angels and Jesus or whatever deity you prefer waiting for you It is not, as Noyes and Linden real life theorists argue, a result of the human mind s inability to comprehend its own death 37 Nor is it a psychological detachment from fear, as Roth another real life theorist argues Dr Wright argues instead in the book that There s no evolutionary advantage to making dying easier or pleasant 37 What Joanna eventually discovers is that the NDE is an SOS, the brain sending out signals to the rest of the body, a last ditch effort by the brain to jump start the system 744 It s the body s version of a crash team 744 And the NDE takes a form that will be meaningful for the individual Like a dream, it plays on the knowledge, experiences, and values of the person having it For Joanna, who doesn t believe in the dead relatives and Jesus version of the afterlife, her NDE takes the form of the TItanic It is a metaphor for the experience her body is undergoing As it dies, the TItanic is sinking It sends out SOS messages, it sends up flares, it tries to communicate If the messages get through in time, there is a chance The body may jump start itself Some passengers may be saved If not, it s the end Willis s ideas about NDEs are interesting not because I know anything about the actual science of NDEs or because she provides a real answer to this question, but because of what they reflect about her attitude toward death and about many people s attitudes toward death The near death experience and the way it is interpreted since we don t seem to have an absolute answer about this yet says something about our beliefs about death, the afterlife, and our values As Joanna is dying the third section of the book is split fairly evenly between the other characters trying to figure out her final message to them about the way the NDEs work and her own experience of death , she has time to reflect in the NDE, where time is dilated and not linked to real time She thinks, even the last words of the dying were not messages at all, but only useless echoes of the living Useless lies I will never leave you, they said, and then forgot everything in the dark, disintegrating water We will be together again, and that was the biggest lie of all There were no fathers waiting on the shining shore No prophets, no elders, no Angels of Light No light at all And they would never be together She would never see them again, or be able to tell them where she had gone Willis, then, is presenting a vision of life and of death that is not religious or spiritual or sentimental You live, you do the best you can, you make a difference if you can, then you die There is no need to sugarcoat the truth and lie about what happens after death It is terrifying that is why so many people cannot face it and instead depend upon images of Jesus waiting to take them into his arms, why so many people see their relatives waiting for them The terrifying thing about death, as Willis recognizes here, is the loss of identity that accompanies it Seeing your dead relatives waiting for you, she points out though I can t find the precise page on which she does so , is comforting because it proves that you are still you Someone there knows who you are The confusing thing for me is that although Willis makes this argument very clearly, the final chapter ends the book with a sense of hope The final chapter opens with an epigraph from C S Lewis a well known Christian writer on resurrection Guesses, of course, only guesses If they are not true, something better will be Opening the chapter with this quote indicates that something better will develop, that up to this point we have only been guessing That much is true No one really knows what happens after death We are guessing But whence this focus on something better At this point, the Titanic part of Joanna s NDE has sunk She is dead But the Joanna within the NDE survives, clinging to a bit of wreckage and accompanied by a small girl she has named Helen and a French bulldog As they float there, Joanna is convinced she is about to die, but then a boat appears on the horizon Not the Carpathia Not the Mackay Bennett, which was the ship sent out to pick up the frozen corpses Instead, the ship that appears is the Yorktown, a WWII ship central to another character s stories, a WWII ship that sank Joanna attempts to make sense of this new development This could be some final synapse firing, some last attempt to make sense of dying and death, some final metaphor Or something else altogether 780 As the boat approaches, the sky turns golden as the sun rises The sailors are coming to rescue them Are you scared Helen asked Are you Helen demanded Yes, Joanna said No Yes I m scared, too, Helen said Joanna put her arm around her The sailors were shouting from the railing, waving their white hats in the air Behind them, above the tower, the sun came out, blindingly bright, gilding the crosses and the captain What if it sinks again Helen asked fearfully The Yorktown went down at MIdway Joanna smiled down at her, at the little bulldog, and then looked back at the Yorktown All ships sink sooner or later, she said, and raised her hand to wave in greeting But not today Not today After all the emphasis Willis has placed on the loneliness and finality of death, this ray of sunshine at the end, even if only some final synapse firing, seems misplaced I don t know how to feel about it Despite everything that s been said, death is okay There is an afterlife Or Joanna s brain is just easing the transition Willis does not deal clearly with this hope, nor does she earn it with the rest of the novel.Overall, despite the flaws I ve pointed out, it is a good book It s just not a great book. I will repeat my original review of this book here I cannot, in all good conscience, recommend this novel You will most likely wind up staying up all night to find out how it ends, and I also don t think it s healthy to hold your breath so long as I did while caught up in the final chapters.This is a brilliant, deeply engaging, philosophical piece of neuroscience fiction that manages to ponder the Big Questions while maintaining an easy conversational style, numerous moments of both tears and laughter, and characters you will love so much you wish they would come to life. Christmas 2010 I realised that I had got stuck in a rut I was re reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works Something had to be done.On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci Fi award That s 35 books, 6 of which I d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life so far.The opening salvo of my Locus Quest were a bit hit and miss Accelerando brilliant Rainbows End so so Anathem perfect Passage ummmm If you ve never read any Connie Willis before Passage probably isn t the best place to start And I say that as a fan.I ve since read To Say Nothing of The Dog and Doomsday Book and loved them both but if I hadn t been working my way through a specific reading list, I m not sure I d have given Willis another chance after Passage .It s not that it s a bad book The characters are likeable It plays on the heartstrings There are amusing moments Some interesting discussions Memorable use of location Powerful thematic resonance Brave plot developmentSo why only two stars I promise, I m not naturally stingy with my stars.I wanted to like it.To me, those common elements of Willis writing style which work so effectively in her Oxford Time Travel books bureaucracy, late messages, tragic death, meandering mystery act in those stories as a sort of grounding mechanism and counterpoint for the danger or romance of the time travel adventure In Passage , the adventure is a scientific investigation into markedly morbid terrain and, in my opinion, applying the same techniques just doesn t work.This time around I found the bureaucracy grating, the late messages petty and the meandering mystery not particularly mysterious and mostly just frustrating.For a sci fi award winner, there really wasn t much any in the way of classic sci fi elements The ending was vague, symbolic, but ultimately unsatisfying And for significant periods progress became a sort of grit your teeth and trudge.Masie Nellis, the sick 9 yr old girl, is such a loveable and memorable character that she practically earns that second star on her own.But I won t read this one again If anybody would like to see if they fare any better, let me know and for a couple of quid donation to a good cause of your choice this book can be yours, otherwise Passage is looking at a one way ticket to the local charity shop. Dr Joanna Lander is a psychologist collecting first hand accounts of NDEs near death experiences at a Denver hospital Frustrated by new age Mr Mandrake, who keeps getting to patients ahead of her and polluting their accounts with leading questions and suggestions, Joanna eagerly joins forces with Dr Wright, who is experimenting with simulating NDEs However, finding volunteers who meet the criteria is tough, and keeping them is even harder Joanna decides she should be a subject herself and to tell anything else would spoil the story.I first looked at this back a few years ago, when I had just finished Doomsday Book and was looking for another Connie Willis fix of the same caliber But the description to this one sounded startlingly different, and I put it back on the shelf and forgot about it Then Siren Sarah mentioned her ongoing deep love for Connie Willis, and I decided it was time to read this And it was the right time, because I really enjoyed and admired this book, which was perfect for the year I ve been having since October On the one hand, I agree with numerous reviewers that the story is a bit too long, especially in the middle section when Joanna is running all over the hospital, half the people she needs to find are out with the flu, and no one is reachable by telephone, which felt very much like Doomsday Book revisited Although at least this one is set firmly in the late 1990 s rather than sometime in the future, so the lack of mobile phones and the difficulty reaching people is true to the time I think 50 to 100 pages could be cut without anyone particularly noticing But on the other hand, all that running around, plus the ridiculous layout of the hospital, where nothing is reachable in anything resembling a straight line, turns out to be a reflection of a late story discovery, and I was left applauding the author s genius in setting it up that way There s also a shocking plot twist which left me desperately wanting to return to all the seemingly pointless bouncing about between characters and locations, and that effect on me was so true to life that it also reinforces Connie Willis s brilliance Also brilliant all the characters Even the most minor characters were well developed and acted sounded just like real people, with their own internal lives and agendas Maisie, a 9 year old heart patient, is both adorably precocious and darkly grim without crossing the line into annoying well, not any annoying than 9 year olds in general can set their minds to being Mr Beardsley, Joanna s former high school teacher who has early onset Alzheimer s disease, is touchingly drawn This whole book is a great mix of comedy and sadness, and I really enjoyed it I don t want to say much Just thanks to Sarah for reminding me I needed to read it This book made a grown man cry Granted, deferring to my partner, grown man may be too strong a word, but you get my point I m usually cold hearted and cynical, but Connnie Willis knows how to press my teary buttons.At the time of first reading this I had a great lecturer called Joanna who fit the description of the main character to a tee, leaving me emotionally invested in the story than the average reader.Moving away from me sobbing like a baby, this is classic Connie Willis Magnificent characterisation, a plot with so many obstacles it can be frustrating and a touch of weirdness Well a lot of weirdness, the central mystery is an intriguing one.There is no sci fi here, technically it is kind of a fantasy novel, set in present time, centreing on two hospital workers investigating from the sceptical side near death experiences So we get to meet some great crackpot characters as well as the usual heart warming Connie Willis creations.Ranking this book on the Connie Willis spectrum it s not as good as To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Books, but it is better than Blackout All Clear Most Connie Willis fans should love it despite the themes being different from her norm.Despite this book not being my favourite Connie Willis it is still damn good 5 star material I loved it, even though it broke my heart. I can t believe I read this whole book I swear, every time I picked it up, someone had added another 25 pages to it I thought about bailing at around page 100, and then again at page 200 and even at page 300 But I loved Doomsday by this same author, and couldn t bring myself to give up on this one It s about near death experiences and the Titanic how can that combination fail to be interesting In fact, the story was interesting, but the book was too long by about 200 pages mostly due to repeated and repeated and repeated minor plot elements that added nothing to the book The dialogue and interactions among the main characters were absolutely awful and completely unbelievable And most of the minor characters the flirtatious nurse, sick kids mom in denial, celebrity psychologist were caricatures and then some Actually, I remember that the author used a similar style in Doomsday, with over the top character parodies, but somehow it was funnier in that book maybe because they were British There is some wonderful writing at the end of the book and very poignant perspectives on life and death But slogging through 597 pages to get there was not worth it. Passage is a remarkable work from a remarkable author I ve read it at least twice and it still blows me away Willis treats the great question of what happens when we die with humor and sadness Her treatment of the subject of dementia rang especially true I had visited my grandmother in the nursing home many, many miles away when she was very far gone with senile dementia She was completely unaware of her surrounding Some of the things she was saying were eerily echoed in Passage I highly recommend this book.
- 780 pages
- Connie Willis
- 17 October 2017 Connie Willis