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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