Dr. Joanna Lander is a psychologist with an unusual specialty—near-death experiences. A researcher at Mercy General Hospital, she gets alerted whenever anyone codes and is brought back so that she can interview them quickly about what they experienced. The challenge is getting to them before the renowned Maurice Mandrake whose book, The Light at the End of the Tunnel, has given people what Joanna suspects is a false idea about these near-death experiences (NDEs). His questioning methods lead people right to the same narrative—a sound, a tunnel, an angel, a life review, and a call to return.
Joanna’s research takes a turn when a new neurologist, Richard Wright, joins the staff of Mercy General and asks Joanna to join him on his own research. Richard has been trying to give people non-lethal near-death experiences with drugs so that he can learn what’s happening in the brain in the moments of death and perhaps find a way to help the dying return to life.
This novel has a lot of the elements common to most of the Connie Willis novels I’ve read. There’s a woman and a man brought together professionally and perhaps personally in a pleasant romantic comedy plot. There’s a madcap cast of characters, some of whom are truly grating and some of whom mean well but are intense in a way I find overwhelming. There’s a lot of running around—the hospital is poorly laid-out, and renovations make certain floors off-limits so that there’s never a straightforward path from one place to another. And there’s a tendency for some ideas—the ER is dangerous, the cafeteria is always closed—to get run into the ground.
Despite all of this, I enjoyed this book. The central characters—not just Joanna and Richard, but their friends, patients, colleagues, and test subjects—are likable people. And even the exasperating characters are mostly decent folks.
But the book’s real pleasure is in the story. This story took some turns! The first big turn is when Joanna herself decides to become a test subject and experience an NDE. Where she winds up is a shock to everyone, especially Joanna. From there, much of the book is Joanna trying to understand her experience. Richard send her back into the NDE again and again, and each time she uncovers something new. She digs through the accounts of other patients and test subjects to see if there experiences were like her own—or not. For a time, the book develops a kind of repetitive rhythm, but I liked that because each repetition brought some new information to mull over.
And then the book takes a totally new and entirely unexpected turn. Truly, it was one of the biggest narrative shocks I’ve encountered in years. From there, the investigation continues, but new questions have emerged. Although the book could have been shorter—it’s almost 600 pages—I was really into the story the whole time.
If you’re wondering whether Willis takes up a position about the afterlife, I think she lands in a place where people of many different beliefs could be comfortable. The book’s focus is on the science, on what happens in the mind and body in those last moments. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more than one understanding of what goes on. The ending is pleasingly ambiguous, leaving readers to imagine more than one possibility. It’s a good way of handling that very big question.