This book is kind of a beautiful mess. I can think of few other authors with the equal ability to drive me absolutely insane and keep me reading, usually with a lump in my throat. This is my third Connie Willis novel. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of my favorite books of all time, a comedic farce wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a sci-fi novel. It is probably too long and a lot of the plot relies on misunderstandings, miscommunication, missed connections and narrative dead ends. Doomsday Book is... not one of my favorite books of all time, a tragedy wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a sci-fi novel and haphazardly glued to a comedic farce-turned-maudlin. It is definitely too long.Passage. Passage is a... something. It has elements of comedy, but it isn't nearly as humorous as To Say Nothing of the Dog. It is certainly tragic, but hardly the bleak death march of Doomsday Book. It is arguably sci-fi, but we're dealing with a fairly plausible (on its own terms, at least) medical exploration rather than, you know, time travel. It is also definitely too long.But damn, all those pages pack a punch. Not that there couldn't be about a third fewer of them.You know this if you have read Connie Willis before, but she has an... unusual way of telling stories. Basically, she plops us right into her characters brains, and give us access to their every thought. Then she gives them a mystery to solve. Instead of watching someone gather clues and track down a solution, we get to hear them endlessly natter on about what the solution might be, but no, it probably isn't, but maybe if oh, but no. Sometimes, the character will search for hundreds of pages for a particular piece of evidence, thinking it might hold the solution to the whole shebang. But it doesn't. And almost always, that part could just be clipped right out, still leaving you with an entirely respectable 500-page novel. Other times, the character is on the right track, if she could just manage to call a key person and not get a busy signal, answering machine, or unhelpful secretary.This undeniably irritating "style" worked for me in TSNotD and irked me to no end in Doomsday Book (which definitely mashed the "phones are wacky and unpredictable!" button into oblivion). In Passage, it... still kind of bugged me, but when you are unraveling the biggest mystery of all, I guess you are going to have to expect some wheel-spinning. Though it probably didn't need to be in the form of endless descriptions of the maze-like interior of a hospital constantly under construction, or the repeated ramblings of a WWII veteran, or people constantly complaining about a cafeteria that is never open. I mean, it's all lightly amusing, and filled with colorful supporting players, but good grief. Is there an editor in the house?But as I said, some of that is to be expected (and at least some of it turns out to be thematically relevant). Because the mystery Connie Willis is taking on here is death. Technically, near-death experiences -- what they are, what they mean. But really, it's death. The big question that no one will ever answer. Willis certainly doesn't, not even in nearly 800 pages, but she gets so, so close to figuring out what death feels like, or what we imagine it will feel like, or want to hope for. Both for the dying and those who must go on living afterward. Somehow, she accomplishes this while offering several Wikipedia pages worth of detail on brain chemistry, famous last words, and the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic. There's a subject that probably doesn't need another book, and yet it's still a fascinating, harrowing tragedy, meaningful in its meaninglessness, and the perfect centerpiece for a book about the struggle with mortality (no, I'm not going to explain how it fits into the plot). "The perfect metaphor, looming up suddenly out of nowhere in the middle of your maiden voyage, unseen until it is nearly upon you, unavoidable even when you try to swerve, unexpected even though there have been warnings all along." As it is with icebergs, so too is it with car crashes and murders and heart attacks and cancer: if only things had happened a little differently, disaster may have been averted. But only for a little while. Every ship eventually sinks.But hopefully not today.