Monday, 23 January 2012

Some of my favourite reads, No 2

Passage by Connie Willis
I have only read about six of her novels but Connie Willis has become one of my favourite authors.  She writes what is described as SF, but it is not hard SF by any means, just including something in the stories where a device is needed that is not available at present.  She is not a prolific writer, having only a fairly small output, but every book I have read so far has shot straight into my top 50 favourite books.  Several of her History Department novels are set in the same background and she has successfully entrapped me into wanting to read more.  The ones I know are ‘Doomsday Book’, ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’ and ‘Blackout’.

Passage is a standalone novel, not part of her other ‘History Department’ novels and really not SF at all, although it involves going where medical research has not gone before, but what a massively good book! Passage is a fantastic read.
Based in a generic but instantly recognisable hospital, where both bureaucratic and jobsworth staff make life difficult for our heroine.  Three independent teams of people are researching near death experiences (NDE) in their own particular ways.  One of these is a writer, a Mr Mandrake, who has made a name writing about the paranormal and wants to get material for his next book about the afterlife.  He is totally non scientific in his approach and will impose his own ideas on resuscitated patients rather than let them tell him what they really experienced.  The main character is Dr Joanna Lander, who is trying to get to patients who have been revived before Mandrake, has had a chance to influence their memories. Whereas her research is attempting to find out as objectively as possible if there are any common thread in people's recollection of a NDE, Mandrake just wants to confirm his own ideas, and sell his books on the afterlife and to do this he will put words into the mouths of his interviewees. If he gets to the patients first he will feed them ideas that cloud Joanna’s research, so she is constantly trying to avoid Mandrake as much as possible. Mandrake is keen on getting her to work with him since it would add authenticity to his work, without realising what harm his kind of non research is doing but Joanna wants to keep her interviews uninfluenced and is having a hard job fending him off.
Meanwhile, a Dr Richard Wright is carrying out similar research independent to Joanna in order to understand the mechanism in the brain that produces the NDE with the idea that it may be possible to recognise when patients are close to death and stop them slipping away. 
He has identified that a NDE produces very specific brainwave patterns and these can be induced artificially by means of a particular drug, so he does not need to wait for someone to make a recovery from a genuine NDE but can induce them at will in a healthy person. 
Joanna and Dr Wright after some stormy encounters when Dr Wright believes Joanna is helping mandrake, eventually get together and using volunteers start to get some good results. The supply of volunteers dries up so Joanna lets herself be put under to induce an NDE.  She sees a passage with the light at the end as per common experience and tries to get to the end of the corridor to see what is there.   Over several sessions, she gets further along the passage and starts to realise that the passage appears to be on the Titanic just after its collision with the iceberg. 
With the aid of a long term patient Masie, a little girl who has suffered several NDEs due to her chronically poor health and whose hobby is reading about disasters, Joanna learns more about the Titanic disaster and as surreal as it seems, she starts to really believe she is actually visiting this doomed ship but cannot figure out how or why.
As the story progresses, set against the background of the nightmare hospital we have all visited at one time or another, full of maze-like corridors, restaurants that never seem to be open when you want them, violent outpatients and stressed staff, she begins to understand what is happening to her and with a sudden insight understands completely.   She sets out to find Dr Wright to tell him…. 
No I will not say what happens next, you had just better read it!
Like Connie Willis’s other books, the background is complex and believable and the story just flows along taking the reader with it. 
So buy it, borrow it, st….  ok don’t steal it, but get hold of it somehow is is a must read.
A young history researcher is trapped in the past and witnesses the ravages of the plague, helpless to stop it or aid anyone.  A tragic story but so gripping.
The same History Department trying to find a missing artifact from Coventry Cathederal lost during WWII, go back to Victorian England to track it down. Quite the opposite to Doomsday Book, much more light hearted and really funny.


  1. I loved To Say Nothing of the Dog - but I used to live in Coventry so I had a personal link to it. I've not read anything else by her. Maybe I should hunt out something.

  2. I've read "To Say Nothing of the Dog" but found it a bit tough going. I'm not one for details - tend to skip over them, but then, in this book, I had to keep retreating backwards to see what I'd missed, as it would start to not make sense. I might give "Passage" a try - sounds interesting!

  3. Another author to add to the 'to read' list. Thank you!

  4. M-AJ, To Say Nothing of the Dog is high on my list of favourites, it is great fun. I wonder what the Bishopp's Birdstump really looks like, the mind boggles. If you pick up Doomsday Book, keep a box of kleenex by you.
    Kaybee, Passage is more linear than T.S.N.o.t.Dog, so you should find it slightly easier going.