PassagePassage by Connie Willis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

all in all, a well-done meditation on what a near-death experience (NDE) might signify, and what it might imply for life after death.

i read this book pretty obsessively–it’s well-plotted, full of interesting scientific and philosophic detail. if you’re after a book with some meat on its bones, you could certainly do worse than this one.

but i am unhappy about it as a whole… mostly because it came so close to being deeply awesome, and instead is just a really good book.

the characters have no real lives except for their work. they make occasional wisecracks about movies or cute cops seen in passing, but 99% of their discourse and the same quantity of their thoughts are about NDEs. i wanted to know, just occasionally, whether they thought about what life might mean–and small, quotidian things, like how a favorite sweater felt, and what pleasure they got from it. we don’t even find out that the protagonist has a sister until nearing the end of the book, let alone what she might have thought of said sister, or why they are estranged, etc. (if you’re irked because i’ve failed to add spoiler tags, don’t be–the sister has no function except as a plot device, a function she performs and then gracelessly exits the stage.) i do not know any humans who live as siamese twins to their work–everybody has something else they love.

ok now the spoilers are coming.

and then comes the end of the book, which is an absolutely heroic effort on the writer’s part. seriously, i applaud her wholeheartedly for following her dying protagonist so far. i can’t remember ever seeing a writer devote so much ink, attempt to articulate so minutely what dying might be like. so, kudos. and she did a good job of all that, within the limits of the plot she’d set up. but maisie’s death tied into joanna’s? even loosely? when joanna had cashed out weeks before maisie? that’s a great deal harder to swallow.

but the thing that really hurt was the ship–the one that implied that there was some afterlife awaiting after death. throughout the book the protagonist and all the characters not being made fun of are pretty insistent that we just don’t know what comes after. and then we have a ship! i’m glad it was a ship and not an angel, but still… will nobody say, after death, we cease to exist entirely? ever? maybe philip larkin was the only one with those kind of cojones….

but oh, one really funny thing, man those hospital employees eat genuinely crappy food. i don’t know whether real hospital employees do, but i had to laugh every time one of these folks ingested a “meal.”

anyway. got her next book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, looking forward to it.