Passage (2002) Connie Willis, Voyager, £6.99, pbk, 780pp, ISBN 0-00-711826-0
This is probably Willis' best novel to date, a humorous, compelling, occasionally disturbing reflection on death and mortality. Dr Joanna Lander is studying Near Death Experiences when she is approached by Dr Richard Wright who has found a way to induce NDEs using dithetamine. Due to a lack of suitable subjects Joanna takes part in the study herself but, instead of seeing the usual tunnel and light most commonly reported in NDEs, she finds herself aboard a ship. As the study progresses the visions become more detailed, subjectively longer and filled with a sense of import. Joanna knows she must unravel the mystery of the NDE's meaning and is led to seek out her old English teacher, only to find him suffering from Alzheimers. Can she discover something significant before the study's funding is cut? Or does the vision she experiences carry a more personal meaning?
Willis carries the reader effortlessly into the world of Passage with a thoroughly engaging cast of characters including Joanna's friend from the ER, Vielle, a very young, terminally ill little girl patient, Maisie, the ignorant Mr Mandrake, who believes that NDEs are messages from the "other side", and the teacher's daughter, Kit, who aids Joanna in her search. As much a character is the mazelike hospital in which she works, partly reflected in the book's structure and part metaphore for the answer Joanna seeks, as well as the interlocking relationships between the cast. This novel is satisfying on so many levels that it is a pleasure to recommend it.
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