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Passage – Book Review

passage book cover

Written by: Connie Willis
Published by: Bantam Doubleday Dell

Death is the ultimate mystery, a conundrum that unites us all. Many feel a clue to this riddle is the Near Death Experience. Dr. Joanna Lander is trying to conduct a scientific study of the phenomena. This isn’t helped by the familiarity the public has with the classic NDE. She is further hindered by pop psychologist and best-selling author Maurice Mandrake. With his leading questions and constant preaching of his New Age pseudo-Christian version of the afterlife, most of the patients Dr. Lander want to talk to only have Mandrake’s vision in their heads. Even the subjects that give untainted descriptions cause her problems. Maisie, a child with a failing heart which takes her near death too often is a master of keeping adults around to keep her company. So Dr. Lander needs all the help she can get.

Dr. Richard Wright seems to be that help. His project involves a drug that stimulates the brain in the same pattern as an NDE. He has volunteers taking the drug then telling their experiences. Unfortunately, the volunteer pool is full of crackpots, Mandrake followers, and other unsuitable candidates. So, Dr. Lander volunteers herself to take the drug. What she experiences and the doctors’ work to unravel those experiences could change the way we perceive NDEs and maybe life and death itself.

[ad#longpost]The characters in this book are surrounded by death. How they try to comprehend and grasp with the vast enigma of that undiscovered country is what the book focuses on. Dr Lander has Dish Night, a viewing of videos and decompression with her friend Vielle, a nurse in the E.R. Dr. Wright is constantly examining the brain scans for his study, trying to divine their patterns. Maisie obsesses over famous disasters, the Hindenburg, Pompeii, and the Hartford circus fire. We all have coping mechanisms to deal with events in our lives. The mystery for Dr. Lander and Wright is if the NDE is just the brain interpreting its own frantic synaptic firing or if there is more to these experiences than is dreamt of in their philosophy.

For a book whose main subject is death, the writing is surprisingly light. The running jokes of the runabout directions to navigate Mercy General, its cafeteria that never opens, the patients and staff that are focused on their own little worlds keep the story from becoming too somber and drag down. Dr. Lander and Wright, while pursuing their project with scientific rigor, never come off as soulless or lacking humanity. Their little quirks and understandable exasperation over life’s trials make the reader identify with them. One problem was with Dr Mandrake. The book never makes it clear if he really believes the line he gives or if he’s just in it for the money. The best part about Passage is that when you think you know where the plot is going, you turn a corner and find yourself in a completely different direction. If Flatliners makes you cautious about picking Passage up, trust me. Passage is written with intelligence and style.

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