Filler content with iceberg

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #29:-

Connie Willis
Voyager pb, 594pp, £11.99

Psychologist Dr Joanna Landers works at Mercy General Hospital cataloguing the Near Death Experiences of patients declared clinically dead and then revived. She agrees to work with neurologist Richard Wright, who’s found a drug to induce NDEs and hopes that better understanding of their true nature will provide clinical rewards. Joanna believes that his research might benefit Maisie, a ten-year-old heart patient with whom she’s developed a special bond. When Dr Wright runs shorts of volunteers Joanna agrees to be a subject, experiencing at first-hand what, until now, she’s only heard described by others. But Joanna’s NDEs take a form that’s entirely unexpected; she appears to be aboard the passenger liner Titanic just after it hit the iceberg. The explanation lies with Joanna’s old English teacher Mr Briarley, a Titanic buff now stricken with Alzheimers.

In previous novels such as Doomsday Book and Lincoln’s Dreams, Willis has made similarly oblique use of historic fact to telling effect. The ‘famous last words’ that head each chapter and the information about the Titanic’s fate and other great disasters that lace the text help create a fascinating backdrop to a compelling scientific detective story, one that develops into a race against the clock. There’s great characterisation too, especially of the wonderful Maisie, one of sf’s great kids, whose precocity never seems in doubt, and in the picture of Mr Briarley and his carer Kit Gardiner it offers the most believable and heartrending account of senile dementia that I’ve ever read. But though sad don’t go away thinking this is a depressing book. The picture of the human spirit coping with adversity is uplifting, and it ends with a vision of death that approaches the majestic.

Then there’s the irritation factor. As an example, Dr Wright has a subject called Mrs Haighton who, thanks to her busy social whirl, is continually calling to reschedule appointments. We get this not once or twice, but about thirty times. Willis seems incapable of making a point without she labours it. Over and over again we hear how Mercy General is a maze in which people are always getting lost, how the cafeteria is always closed and the ER is dangerous, how Joanna is always hungry and Richard always has food in his pockets. Then there are Mr Mandrake and Mrs Davenport, two NDE nutters who Joanna is continually avoiding. In fact, although she appears to be up for sainthood, I found Joanna quite irritating. For a psychologist she’s badly in need of assertiveness training, so she won’t let all these people and things go on wasting her (and my) time. These running jokes become a tax on the reader’s patience. They add about fifty pages, but nothing else.

I don’t want to detract from Willis’s achievement. Passage is a very good book, a substantial book that tackles serious themes in an intelligent and insightful manner, and certainly worth a few hours of any reader’s time. It’ll probably win the writer more awards to put on her mantelpiece, and deservedly so. But inside the good book there’s a better book struggling to get out. It needed a strong editor to tell Willis to cut all the crap.

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