Completed 2/28/2014, Reviewed 3/7/2014
“Passage” is novel about researchers studying the phenomenon of NDEs, or, near-death experiences. It is told in the same vein as Willis’ Oxford time travel series, and has all the same adventure, excitement, and urgency. I have this mental block with books that are over 400 pages long, dreading the length, wondering how long will it take me to get into the plot and the characters. A few pages into this 600 page tome was all it took to pull me in. Willis simply has a knack for strapping you into a roller coaster and not letting you off until the ride comes to a complete stop.
The main character Joanna Lander is a researcher at a Denver hospital, trying to collect objective data on NDEs from people who have just experienced them. Unfortunately, her data is often polluted by her unintentional associate and nemesis, Mr. Mandrake, another researcher who always seems to get to the patients before her. By asking the patients leading questions, Mandrake ruins the objectivity of the information Joanna needs for her own research. And there’s no way of blocking Mandrake because he’s a famous author of life-after-death books and the darling of the hospital’s most generous and oldest benefactor.
Soon, another researcher comes on the scene. Richard Wright is researching the brain while under the influence of a certain drug which seems to imitate the NDE. Joanna joins forces with Richard, while trying to avoid the prying, pushy, and self-absorbed Mandrake. Because of a small pool of slowly dissipating test subjects, Joanna offers to be a test subject for Richard. Who better than someone who already knows the questions to ask. And then the book gets really exciting.
Besides Willis’ fast-paced story telling style, she excels at creating amazingly vivid and profound supporting characters. Because of the nature of the story, many of these are people who you don’t expect to be living by the end of the book. It adds a depth to and sympathy for these characters. My favorite was Maisie, the annoying kid with a terrible heart condition who becomes a major player in the race to figure out the riddle of NDEs. To Willis’ credit, she moves Maisie beyond the hackneyed disaster-porn child character, keeping her from being too annoying, making her an active and realistic part of the excitement.
Ultimately, one of the things I like most about the book was that it was about something that could be really emotionally manipulative, but wasn’t. This is about death research--yes, there are several deaths in the book--and I really liked how it was handled by the characters. It’s gut-wrenching without being maudlin. I give this book 4 stars.