Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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by Connie Willis

A book review by Steven Wu
August 12, 2002

Rating: 7 (of 10)

In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis's last full-length novel, the protagonists spend much of their time battling against frustratingly obstinate obstacles, to hilarious effect. In Passage, Willis's most recent book, essentially the same thing happens, but with a far more serious plot.

Joanna Lander and Richard Wright are doctors in Mercy General, a hospital where Joanna, a cognitive psychologist, has been researching near-death experiences (NDE) for nearly two years. Joanna's methodology is to interview NDE patients to find the common thread underlying all of their experiences, but she is frustrated by their confabulations and, sometimes, outright lies. Along comes Richard, a brilliant neurologist who also has been studying NDEs--but Richard, rather than interviewing patients, has decided to study the physical concomitants of NDEs in order to figure out a way to perhaps rouse patients who are firmly stuck in an NDE. After several misunderstandings, the two of them finally end up working together--but soon they discover that NDEs are not all that they both had thought.

Passage begins in trademark Willis fashion, with the characters and plot deftly introduced, and tons of research liberally sprinkled across the pages. Part One of the book is masterful, with several chilling scenes, a compelling mystery, and a doozy of a cliffhanger ending. But then, only a third of the way through the book, things begin slowing down. The book is never entirely bereft of suspense, and there is always at least one mystery that hovers at the edge of being solved, but the sleuthing that Joanna and Richard do becomes increasingly drawn out, and their discoveries, though never obvious, grow decreasingly exciting. The problem becomes especially aggravating in the last part of the book, when Richard spends an inordinate amount of time tracking down the answer to a question that Joanna had already conclusively solved in the previous part. Of course, there is a good reason why Joanna does not communicate her answer to Richard--but the fact that the reader already knows what it is that Richard is looking for certainly hurts the suspense.

Among Willis's other trademarks, Passage also contains scads and scads of (textually described) physical humor, the kind where the protagonists' goals are increasingly frustrated in more and more convoluted ways, often leading to outright panic. For instance, Mercy General is a hospital whose maze of corridors, annexes, and dead ends give Willis ample opportunity to exercise her flair for such panicky physical humor. And Joanna's interviews are often exercises in (extreme) frustration as she attempts to pry information out of patients who are not entirely forthcoming--or who baldfacedly repeat the same lies over and over again. But although Willis writes these scenes effectively, they sometimes seem to exist solely for the sake of extending the length of the book, or to artificially prolong suspense. Plus the variety of physical humor is fairly homogeneous--the vast majority of these scenes involve the protagonists either getting lost in the hospital or being unable to page/phone/contact one another, and it's hard not to think, "Again?!" when another one of these scenes pop up.

Finally, although the book is still tightly plotted, things become increasingly silly by the end. It's hard to say more without spoiling the plot, but the chapters in the last part that do not have to do with Richard's sleuthing don't make any sense to me (what exactly is going on?), Richard's action on page 432 seems terribly irrational, and the conclusion of Maisie's storyline is a bit too pat--and, for once in a Willis novel, completely obvious. Plus, the idea of a metaphor can be taken too far--and in Passage the idea is, if not broken, then definitely stretched to its limit.

Passage is still a fun book to read, but it does not come close to the level of Willis's previous two full-length novels. Still, if you're a fan of Willis's, then it will be well worth your while to pick this up. If you're not, then try To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book first.

Copyright © 2002 Steven Wu

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