Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Passage: Connie Willis

Joanna Lander is a doctor working at Mercy General Hospital. She specializes in NDE - Near Death Experiences - and her goal in life is to discover what really is on the Other Side of death. She interviews people in the hospital who have undergone NDE, but it's very hard for her to glean fact from fiction because of Maurice Mandrake, a pseudo-psychologist and famous author, who is only concerned with convincing people that warmth, happiness, and light await them on the Other Side so that he can sell a new bestseller.

Then Dr. Richard Wright arrives. He is a brilliant young neurologist also on the quest of discovering what NDE really is, and has even been able to manufacture NDE's with the aid of psychoactive drugs. Joanna and he team up to see if they can interview objective subjects as to what they see and feel during an NDE.

The scientific research and results are frustrating, and as time goes on the people that have volunteered for the experiment start drifting away until there is only one thing left to do. Joanna herself goes under the drug, and experiences an NDE firsthand.

The experience is both what she expected and not what she expected. The place she finds herself in is haunting and somehow familiar. It makes her want to go under again. But each time she goes under, she starts to feel a sense of dread growing within her, as though she knows why the place is familiar and why she should be afraid.

In an effort to try and understand why the NDE is so familiar, Joanna catapults on a "quest" to figure out what her brain is telling her as she is "dying." The results and discovery are unexpected to say the least, and the climax is a stunner, for sure!

PASSAGE is gorgeously written. Connie Willis lets you see, feel, and hear the heartbeat of Mercy General Hospital, and makes you aware of the undercurrent of tension that most likely pulses in the veins of every hospital. There is a lot of drama and build-up in the first part of the book, and though not a lot happens you can't stop reading, because there's just something gripping about people running frantically through corridors in an effort to discover what NDE is all about. PASSAGE is chock-full of memorable characters -- the incorrigible WWII veteran with his ever-changing stories, the Mandrake-influenced NDE patient with her newly-discovered facts about the Other Side, the critically ill child with a penchant for disaster stories -- and you'll laugh, cry, and bite your nails through every page of this incredibly haunting novel.

My Rating: *****

PASSAGE Book Description:

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.


Most of us would rather not spend a lot of time contemplating death
, but the characters in Connie Willis's novel Passage make a living at it. Joanna Lander is a medical researcher specializing in Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and how the brain constructs them. Her partner in this endeavor is Richard Wright, a single-minded scientist who induces NDEs in healthy people by injecting a compound that tricks the brain into thinking it's dying. Joanna and Richard team up and try to find test subjects whose ability to report their experiences objectively hasn't been wrecked by reading the books of pop-psychologist and hospital gadabout Maurice Mandrake. Mandrake has gained fame and fortune by convincing people that they can expect light, warmth, and welcoming loved ones once they die. Joanna and Richard try to quantify NDEs in more scientific terms, a frustrating exercise to say the least.

The brain cells started to die within moments of death. By the end of four to six minutes the damage was irreversible, and people brought back from death after that didn't talk about tunnels and life reviews. They didn't talk at all.... But if the dying were facing annihilation, why didn't they say, "It's over!" or, "I'm shutting down"?... Why did they say, "It's beautiful over there," and, "I'm coming, Mother!"

When Joanna decides to become a test subject and see an NDE firsthand, she discovers that death is both more and less than she expected. Telling anything at all about her experience would be spoiling the book's suspenseful buildup, but readers are in for some shocks as Willis reveals the secrets and mysteries of the afterlife. Unfortunately, several running gags--the maze-like complexity of the hospital, Mandrake's oily sales pitch, and a tiresomely talkative World War II veteran--go on a little too long and threaten the pace of the story near the middle. But don't stop reading! We expect a lot from Connie Willis because she's so good, and Passage's payoff is incredible--the ending will leave you breathless, and more than a little haunted. Passage masterfully blends tragedy, humor, and fear in an unforgettable meditation on humanity and death. --Therese Littleton


  1. Wow, this sounds "chillingly" good! Guess I'll have to put this on my long list of must reads. Great review, Cat. You got me hooked!

  2. Wow! This book sounds unique and intriguing. I love the premise of the book and from your review it is a must read. Before reading your review I had never heard of the book. Now it is on my TBR list. Thanks for sharing!


  3. It was really good, Allyn. It took me a little bit to get into the book, because the first few chapters just "set the scene". However, you get to a point where you are just ACHING to discover what NDE's really are! It was excellent.

  4. Mirka, that is exactly the word. Intriguing. And haunting is the other word I'd use. :)

    Jess, it was really good! I wasn't sure I was going to like it when I first started reading, but then once I got through the first couple chapters I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was a definitely worthwhile read.

  5. Every once in a while I run into a novel in which "not a lot happens" but "you can't stop reading," as you describe Passage. To me, that's a sign of someone who can really craft mood, atmosphere, and energy out of words.

  6. Very interesting. I hadn't heard of this book before. Thanks for the review!

  7. Anne, I think you'd really like it. It is mostly mood and atmosphere, with a bit of frantic detecting that makes you so nervous!

    Kelly, I hope you read it. It's somewhat massive, but a fantastic read!

  8. Nice recommendation, Cat. I love reading novels with more than one or two memorable characters. (Actually, I'm always more interested in films that feature more than one or two interesting characters. Somewhat like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and a French film called 8 WOMEN ...) I haven't read stories on NDE yet, so maybe this will be my first. =)

  9. Let me know what you think about it, Claudine. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  10. Cat- Thanks for mentioning how long it took you to get into the story. I always like to know that in case the story seems a little slow in the beginning.


  11. It sets the tone really well, Jess. The only reason I knew it was slow was because I could put it down and read other things as well. But then I got to a point where I didn't WANT to read anything else, and that's when it really took off.

  12. Cat, I like the idea behind the story with working in near death experiences. You did a fine job in reviewing this and making it tempting.

  13. I'm glad it interested you, Mike. I have my dad reading it now! :)


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