Passage, by Connie Willis
9/10, a science fiction thriller with gorgeous, real characters
I posted previously about the effective tricks Connie Willis uses to build tension in “Passage,” a science fiction thriller about life and afterlife. By the time I got to the end, it was seriously almost impossible to put the book down. I’m pleased to report that she brings it all to a satisfying conclusion as expertly as she built it up.
To tell too much about the book would be to ruin its surprises, so here’s simply the premise: Joanna Lander, a doctor at Denver’s Mercy General hospital, is studying Near-Death Experiences. NDEs are the visions people experience when they die and then are revived (possibly also when they die and aren’t revived, but those we can’t get any record of), and while Joanna is taking a scientific tack at them, the wonderfully named Dr. Mandrake at the same hospital is taking the John Edward approach, urging people to remember the angels he’s sure they saw. This infuriates Joanna and her scientific mind, so when Dr. Richard Wright shows up with a neurochemical-based approach to the research, she joins him in his project.
The tug between spiritual and scientific energizes some of the book, but is not the central conflict; this is a science fiction book, after all, and there’s little doubt which side is favored. That’s not to say it’s never in doubt (nor that the ending is predictable), just that there is a more central theme to the book. Joanna’s central problem is the quest for knowledge, for truth, and the lengths to which she will go to get it are what really give the book its momentum. In every scene, she gets maddeningly close to finding what she thinks is the key to unraveling the mystery of the NDEs, taking us along with her from promising lead to dead end, from helpful but annoying friend to frustrating but ultimately helpful colleague.
What keeps the book’s energy up throughout are the characters. Joanna is a terrific main character, driven and sympathetic, but I could rattle off half a dozen tremendously drawn personalities off the top of my head and still be missing another half dozen. From the over-protective mother of a dying little girl to a character who spends most of the book in a coma, Willis’s characters are all alive in a way that any aspiring writer should study and take notes on. We feel for them and want them to succeed, Joanna as much as any of them.
I admittedly have a weak spot for death/ghost stories, but I can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone who loves a good thriller and doesn’t mind a few gruesome medical details.