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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Willis' writing is superb, with believable characters, intriguing ideas, and questions worth asking. Joanna Lander is a psychologist studying near death experiences who is asked by Dr. Richard Wright (interesting name, eh?) to join him in some scientific research. She reluctantly agrees. Another 'doctor' believes persistently that NDE's are full of hope, light, angels, life reviews, etc. (10 key elements), and will not believe that it can be anything other than a spiritual experience. As Joanna and Richard delve further into their research (especially when Joanna also becomes a volunteer for the procedure) their results are both confusing and frightening. Because death and dying are something they are confronted with in people they know, the humanity and individuality of people are not, by any means, lost to them or the reader.

When Joanna 'goes under', she sees a place that is familiar but she isn't sure why. To do her research, she gathers about her a few wonderful characters. Maisie, a young girl with a serious heart condition who is fascinated with disasters because death for her is a reality. Maisie faces death and talks about hard realities, but also is a little girl who wants to make sure that if she dies somebody will be able to identify her. Experiencing fears with a stubborn, strong little girl deeply enhances both Joanna and the story. Kit is a young woman who lost her fiance and is slowly losing her uncle to Alzheimer's. She too knows what it means to face death honestly -- to live in today wisely. Kit has come through loss and because of this brings endurance and hope to the story. Kit's uncle, Mr. Briarley, is the one who gives Joanna the clues she needs to understand what actually occurs in an NDE. due to the NDE's that Joanna experiences, she sees Mr. Briarley in both his state now with Alzheimer's, and also as he would have been without the Alzheimer's -- a contrast which is painful to see, but honest. Vielle, Joanna's best (and only?) friend also ends up helping to discover truth. Vielle works in the ER as a nurse, so also knows what death looks like, as well as hope. Very notable that so many of those involved in the research (unofficially) don't have false assumptions about death being something to go looking for or to be glad for.

One aspect I appreciated this time around was the playing both with time and possibilities. Throughout the book in conversations, the main characters will imagine options for dialog, but then say something else. As the reader we see both the idea and the actuality, which creates an interesting space between reality and possibility. This space is also created with the NDE's -- descriptions are often so vague that little can be known for sure, and both the characters and readers are unsure what is true, what is fabrication (made up), and what is confabulation (filling in the gaps). Part three of the book introduces an element that messes up the time continuum even more. Joanna's thoughts are jumbled, mixing present with near past with distant past with future, in ways such that even she is not sure which is which. The way this uncertainty is carried throughout the book is a nice theme.

Author: Connie Willis
Date published:2001
Genre: science fiction
Number of pages: 780
Notes: second reading


Portugal said...

Partway through this book, I found myself annoyed by all the phone messages, appointments, missed connections, long passageways, and other distractions of modern life the main characters have to go through. I should have known! When illumination came, I realized that those incomplete messages are not only an essential part of the plot, they mirror the brain processes that this book is about. This book is about the workings of the human brain, and it is structured AS a human brain. ...I found the ending perfect in its ambiguity. An ending which settled the life-after-death question one way or the other would have been less satisfactory. Death is a big issue. Facing it squarely is Willis' forte. To make great story-telling out of it is her genius. If you liked The Doomsday Book and Lincoln's Dreams, you'll like this.

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