read: 6 April 2004
I have never said this before, but this review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know an essential plot point before you read it yourself, don’t read it.
Connie Willis is an incredibly capable writer whose sense of what is interesting nearly completely jibes with my own. Her short stories and novels often happen at a somewhat hectic pace with main characters rushing about trying to put out fires, avoid the plague, track down lost colleagues or just try to get some rest. Despite this, the plots have depth and so do her characters. I found this book on the new book shelf at my library despite its age and was really excited to have it during a week when I had a cold.
The overarching theme is pretty straightforward: a doctor doing research on near death experiences [NDEs] meets up with a researcher at her hospital who can actually induce these states in the human brain and they begin to work together. Add to this a nutty doctor who thinks that NDEs are a religious message from beyond, a dying girl who is obsessed with disasters and their victims, and a former high school teacher now deep in the throes of alzheimer’s and you have a lively bunch of characters for practically any setting. The setting in this case is mostly the crazymaking hospital with a dangerous emergency room, a series of winding twisty passages all different, and a nearly constant streasm of pages, phone messages, notes taped to doors and a bunch of missed connections.
What you learn, of course, is that Willis’s hospital is also an elaborate metaphor for the human brain, especially the dying human brain which is also convoluted, hard to map, and filled with a series of urgent messages. We know this because she kills off the main character about 3/5 of the way through the book. As readers we then get to not only read about the NDEs that are induced in the lab, but also one character’s NDE and then subsequent death. This is now the second book I have read in as many weeks that has a first person omniscient dead narrator. As someone who thinks that death is A Big Deal it’s weird to see irt reduced to a plot point, but then again it fits quite well with the rest of the book which is actually quite readable despite the kick-in-the-gut that is the protagonist’s death.
There’s also a quite involved sub-plot about the Titanic which is hard to weave into this review but will make the book extra-interesting if you’re into that sort of thing. Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough, it’s everything youd want from both Connie Willis and her unique brand of semi-speculative fiction.
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