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4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 26 June 2001
Just when you think Willis can't get any better... After the harrowing scenes of her Doomsday Book, and the perfection of her eclectically comic To Say Nothing of the Dog, along comes Passage, a neat combination of hard science (an analysis of neurotransmitter activity during NDEs, or Near Death Experiences), romance (a reworking of the mutually respectful colleagues syndrome we encountered in Bellwether) history (the sinking of the Titanic), comedy, and philosophy. That Willis pulls this mix off is a tribute to that deft style of hers, based as it is on impeccable comic timing, elegant character sketches, and and a dignified approach to the tragic underpinning of life. This book doesn't shirk details of ER activity, fatal illness, loss, excruciatingly embalmed bodies, coma, murder, yet what sticks in the mind are the comic scenes - our heroine, Joanna, eternally in flight from the fiendishly drawn Mandrake, the charalatan spiritualist, or snacking from the impossibly plentiful pockets of her colleage Richard Wright (so nearly Mr Wrong) when she finds the hospital cafeteria shut yet again (a running gag throughout the novel). Or what we notice is the indomitable spirit demonstrated by characters such as the child heart patient, Maisie, whose ghoulish relish for events of mass destruction such as the Hindenberg disaster, and hatred of the 'Pollyanna Disney' approach to life makes her a refreshing juvenile lead in Willis's cast.
To reveal how Willis brings both the body and the mind of her book - both plot and thought - together in perfect symmetry would be to spoil the surprise. But literature, as one of Willis's characters remarks, is all about making connections, and this is a book in which you do, to paraphrase Forster, 'only connect'. It's a revelation. Try it.
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on 12 February 2003
Willis first came to my attention with her short story ‘The Sidon in The Mirror’ which I still continue to believe is one of the finest SF short stories ever written. Since then she has established herself as a consummate writer of diverse styles and subject matter.
Amongst other things she has an innate talent for the comic potential of situations which for the most part blends seamlessly into this mystery of science and metaphysics surrounding research into near-death experiences (NDEs).
Joanna Lander is a serious researcher into the phenomenon, based in Mercy Hospital where she is paged when patients have been revived in order to interview them about anything they may have experienced while they were technically ‘dead’.
She is hampered in her work by Mr Mandrake, a fellow investigator who ruins most of Joanna’s subjects by his leading questions and his determination to prove NDEs to be a spiritual/religious experience.
Lander teams up with ‘the gorgeous’ Dr Wright, who has found he can induce the effects of NDEs with the drug dithetamine.
With a shortage of reliable volunteers, Lander volunteers to undergo the NDE state herself and finds the experience troubling and familiar.
Joanna’s ‘trip’ takes her to what she believes to be the Titanic, a maze of stairways, corridors and elevators which is mirrored in the real world by the Hospital in which she works. Other parallels appear between the Hospital and the ship. The cafeteria seems always to be locked, like the restaurant she discovers on the ship, and obviously, some of the patients will die and some will live.
The hospital backdrop is peppered with vibrant interesting characters and the text and dialogue laced with Willis’ laconic wit. Willis, who has used the subject of Hollywood in previous work, employs her extensive knowledge of films here to great effect.
The Cameron version of ‘Titanic’ come in for a great deal of oblique criticism at various points in the novel – mainly for its gross factual inaccuracies – as does the ‘godawful Celine Dion song’.
Willis also attacks the concept of the New Age/Religious Fundamentalist/Paranormal/Pop Guru culture - personified by the odious Maurice Mandrake, author of ‘The Light at The End of The Tunnel’ – and other aspects of pop psychology.
The novel is perhaps over-long and Willis rather over-eggs the pudding in her obsessive and relentless descriptions of the hospital and its maze of stairwells, walkways and corridors. There are rare moments when the comic incidents seem at odds with the all too serious subject matter, but these lapses are few. She has managed to create a work about Death which is funny, tragic, poignant and ultimately uplifting.
It’s also a contemporary portrait of American society entering the Twenty-First Century, and makes some very sound points about the US’ attitude to Death, children, Science and Religion.
Although not Willis’ best work it deserves re-reading, if only to pick up on all the maze-like and ‘reflective’ imagery and metaphors. Even the title ‘Passage’ can be interpreted in at least three ways and related to themes within the novel.
It’s a novel about our attitude to Death and the need to sanitise the experience (something which is coincidentally also being explored currently in the US TV series ‘Six Feet Under’)
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on 11 August 2006
I've been a big fan of Connie Willis for some years, and although I still think Doomsday Book is her best so far, I think Passage comes a very close second.

The subject matter, near death experiences, is explored in a fascinating way. Unlike other reviewers, I thought the book raced along, and didn't find it overlong at all. Whilst the relationship between Joanna and Dr Wright could have been developed more, they were primarily portrayed as driven work obsessed professionals, who never found time for much of a social life. Maisie was wonderfully drawn - an extremely ill little girl - who was full of life and energy despite her dire prognosis.

There is a massive shock three quarters through the book which left me stunned - I never saw it coming, and don't think most other readers will either.

I found this a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining read despite the subject matter, and thought Connie Willis' humour counterbalanced the subject matter very well.

I would recommend this book to Sci Fi and non Sci Fi readers alike.
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VINE VOICEon 11 June 2003
Connie Willis is one of those few writers who have the real knack of communicating intangible concepts via the written word. In a string of seemingly normal workday events, and almost in real time, she drops tantalising hints here and there, which may or may not impinge on the plot, giving one a sense of impending climax, like a gathering storm, with all the clues massing together to erupt in a welter of ... something, but you have no idea what it could possibly be, although there are plenty of possible scenarios hinted at.
This is one of those books that drags you along, reading faster and faster, til you have to stop for lack of mental breath. Then straight back into it to try and decipher exactly what the climax will be...
Using a similar scenario to 'Doomsday Book', Joanna is based in a hospital, researching Near Death Experience, the 'White Tunnel' syndrome. The obnoxious unscientific Dr. Mandrake, the von Daniken of NDE, generally reaches recovery patients first and runs roughshod over their memory of the event in order to promote his own dubious "There, that proves it!" theory, to the detriment of Joanna's research. Her researches are constantly stymied by him, plus half her subjects are loonies, and her lack of confrontation and control makes matters worse - you really want to shake her, telling her to get in command of the situation.The consequent lack of suitable subjects means she has to adopt an unconventional approach to record the experience better...
I feel as though I should be doing a deeper review to do justice to the book, but that would mean giving away too much of the plot. Suffice to say that this is one of the better sci-fi / metaphysical novels that merits a much wider audience (it helps if you are a film or literature buff) - kept me on tenterhooks for days.*****
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VINE VOICEon 6 April 2002
"Passage" seems to be about near-death experiences (NDEs) and, oddly, the Titanic; in fact it's about death itself. This is a book with a lot of middle, a lot of irritating running about which seems to get nowhere; in fact, this construction is a metaphor for the book's thesis about NDEs. So it's a novel that enacts itself.
There's always a thrill in Willis's dénouements. Here, even the long-awaited revelation of what the heroine's English teacher said in class 20 years earlier is an improbable joy for the reader. Quite how Willis constructs these intricate, cross-genre, multi-themed matrices of character and narrative is beyond me, but long may she continue. This one is powerful, life-enhancing, moving and funny. So no change there.
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on 25 July 2002
Whatever happened to the once-honoured profession of copy editor? This novel could have been pruned of some two hundred pages of waffle with no loss, and considerable gain to its momentum. In particular, every time the heroine, and later the hero, has occasion to travel from one part of the hospital to another we get a detailed breakdown of the itinerary, including the many false turnings taken, presumably as a metaphor for the brain's intricate pathways and the difficulty of mapping a course through them - but enough already!, one feels like groaning -- we got the point the first half-dozen times. Before moving on to what I liked about the book, I have a further complaint: that her annoying and/or awful characters are grotesquely annoying or awful, caricatures rather than believable human beings.
On the positive side, CW has some powerfully haunting images of what the dying experience might be like. I found her Titanic-related NDEs (this isn't giving away the dénouement!) mesmerizing. And mercifully, just as one is bracing oneself for a reductive conclusion to the quest for significance beyond death, she provides some consolation with her compassionate, if enigmatic ending. For these reasons I've awarded the book three stars.
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on 3 August 2002
Another brilliant book from Connie Willis. Intelligent, amusing, and heart-breaking, Passage tackles a subject that few people write about, in a thought-provoking way. It's hard to describe the plot without giving information away. Just when I thought I could predict the end of the story, everything changed.
It's a shame that her work is only displayed in the sf section of bookstores, as I think this would appeal to a more mainstream audience, but they're unlikely to ever find out about it.
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Connie Willis has established a fine reputation within the science fiction field for her satires, her mixtures of finely-detailed, fully researched history and the speculative, and her treatment of emotionally charged thematic material. This book is not only no exception, it should enhance her reputation even more.
The basic scientific point of departure here is the 'near death experience' (NDE), the 'light at the end of the tunnel' that many people have related in one form or another after close brushes with death. Joanna Lander is investigating the phenomenon from the psychological point of view and Richard Wright from the bio-chemical aspect. Dr. Wright has discovered a chemical that allows the apparent simulation of an NDE, and teams with Joanna as an expert interviewer for his test subjects. Due to a lack of suitable test subjects, Joanna eventually decides to try it herself, starting down a long road that leads by Pompeii, the Hindenberg disaster, the Great Molasses Flood, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and for a large portion of the book, the Titanic.
Willis' main characters are exceptionally vivid. Most of the book is told from Joanna's point of view, and it is very hard not to get drawn in to her slow spiral to near-obsession with NDE's and the Titanic. Maisie, a young girl with a major heart problem, will endear herself to you within two pages, possibly because of her unflinching, almost gleeful interest in the most horrible disasters of all time. Within the secondary characters we find all the usual Willis trademark intentional caricatures, from the snake-oil self-aggrandizing Mr. Mandrake, to the super-gullible matron of Mrs. Davenport, to the over-protective mother of Maize, to the over-talkative not-totally-truthful WWII veteran Mr. Wojakowski. These characters are mainly good for sticking pins in, along with some sharp spikes directed at hospital bureaucracies (and hospital buildings!), depicted here as so far removed from reality as to be almost surrealistic.
But the satire is truly secondary to the main thrust of this book, which is a real investigation into not only what death is and what may lie beyond it, but what living is all about, even in the face of accident, pain, and tragedy. Along the way are some very interesting thoughts about how long-term associational memory works. The title of this review is an example: I had seen those three letters before, and recognized them the first time I encountered them in the book, but I couldn't remember when or where I had learned about them or what they meant. Later in the book when I saw them in context, I said "That's where I saw them!" (they have to do with some of the messages that were sent by the Titanic). Willis does a good job of explaining why this type of memory problem occurs, and also why certain 'coincidences' seem to occur (numbers players will not be happy with this).
True to form, Willis' historical research is impressive, not just about details of the Titanic disaster, but several others as well, and her chapter titles of the last words of famous people are extremely interesting. My favorite was Beethoven's: "I shall hear in heaven".
This book may be just a tiny bit less excellent that her Doomsday Book, but both are high powered, emotional looks at the business of both living and dying, at religion and belief, at heroism and banality, and will find a secure lodging in both your brain and your heart.
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on 24 June 2002
I have never liked this author and so it is a double pleasure to have tried reading Passage on the basis of the reviews. I could not put this down. It was gripping from start to finish. There are so many threads I could not review them all so here are two. The protagonist is not superwoman who never has a sniffle, but a fallible researcher who gets distracted and loses trails of thought. This might be annoying but instead just builds up the pressure. The second thread is how an underfunded but serious researcher into brain chemistry tries to avoid being connected with the wealthier and charismatic research author of after death experience books. She cannot afford to offend and the scenes where she seeks to dodge him whilst the author tries to gain more credibility for his own work are almost slapstick.
A jolly good read.
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on 7 May 2016
This was strongly recommended by a friend. After struggling through a couple of chapters, I skimmed it, and found no reason to dip in further. Almost unreadable, and certainly not worth the effort.
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