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By THERESA HEGEL



Published: Sun, September 9, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By THERESA HEGEL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

"Passage," by Connie Willis (Bantam Books, $23.95)

A novel by Connie Willis is always a pleasure. The award-winning author has a distinct style that combines insight, suspense and humor in unique science fiction settings; her books are always thought-provoking and well-researched. "Passage," Willis' latest offering, is no exception, though it is an exceptional piece of work.

The novel centers on the research of psychologist, Joanna Lander, who specializes in near-death experiences (NDEs). At Mercy General Hospital, she interviews patients who have coded and been revived, in order to document objectively what occurs during their NDEs.

Roadblocks: Unfortunately, there are a few roadblocks in Joanna's research. To get the most accurate responses from patients, she must interview them when their memories are still fresh, before they've started to fabricate details to fill in the gaps in their experience.

The other reason it is important for Joanna to interview the patients soon after their NDE is so they aren't influenced by her colleague Maurice Mandrake, who is famed for books such as "The Light at the End of the Tunnel."

Through leading questions and sometimes outright verbal bullying, he gets patients to conform to the standard aspects of the NDE: the tunnel, the golden-white light, the Angel of Light, the Life Review. Using these manufactured testimonies as irrefutable evidence, Mr. Mandrake preaches his feel-good message of a saccharine, sentimental Other Side.

After a patient has been exposed to Mr. Mandrake, it is usually impossible for Joanna to learn anything from that patient.

Collaboration: When Dr. Richard Wright, a new neurologist at the hospital, asks Joanna to collaborate on his study on NDEs, it seems some of her roadblocks have been lifted. Dr. Wright, who hypothesizes that NDEs are one of the brain's survival strategies, has found a way to recreate the NDE in a laboratory setting.

No, this is not quite the edgy, dangerous science of Flatliners, that Julia Roberts movie where med students stop their hearts long enough to have an NDE, but not long enough for brain damage to set in.

Instead, Dr. Wright administers a relatively harmless drug that simulates brain patterns during an NDE. He uses something similar to a PET scan to monitor brain activity during the subjects' pseudo-NDE, but he needs Joanna's help with the interviewing process.

When Dr. Wright's test subjects begin to drop out of the study, Joanna decides to become a subject herself. She figures that she can be more specific and descriptive than many of the subjects and less prone to confabulation.

Though Joanna's experience shares some of the thematic elements of the classic NDE, it is very different from what others have described. As she goes under again and again, Joanna begins to piece together what she is seeing during her NDEs. And what she eventually discovers leads to a shocking, suspenseful climax.

Likable cast: Enhancing the readability of the book, Willis peppers "Passage" with a diverting and likable cast of supporting characters, especially Maisie, a frail girl who has had several NDEs and has an obsession with disasters, and the long-winded Mr. Wojakowski, who joined Dr. Wright's study to gain a new audience for his war stories.

At times hilarious, at times horrifying, but always fascinating, "Passage" is a genuine page-turner from one of science fiction's best writers.

hegel@vindy.com




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