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Willis on track for another Nebula?
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.