Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 4, 2015

The Waiting Room, by Leah Kaminsky

The Waiting Room

No, this is not a cheery book that you could drop into someone’s Christmas stocking.  It is harrowing reading which will leave you drained by the experience.  But it’s an important book, and superbly well-written.  In The Waiting Room, debut novelist Leah Kaminsky has captured fear, guilt and unresolved anguish in a novel that will wring your heart.

Almost all of the story takes place in a single day.  The novel opens in Haifa, in 2001, in the aftermath of a suicide bomb.  Dina is a doctor who is picking her way through the bodies and the rubble, and trying to process what has happened.  Little details distract her, as does the kicking of her unborn child.  At this point in the novel the reader does not know how or when she arrived on the scene, or anything about the bodies strewn  about.  The scene is abstract, impersonal, with emergency services efficient amongst the chaos – as in the safety of our homes we often observe these scenes to be in the aftermath of atrocity.

Dina’s emotions are suppressed, but her body rebels:

The baby kicks violently again.  Pain rips through Dina’s side.  She feels the air close in on her, the thick stench of burnt flesh and blood invading her nostrils.  She can taste the bitterness of charcoal in her mouth.  Tearing herself away from the man, she stumbles over to the corner, just in time to heave her insides onto the floor.  As she turns back to look at the carnage, the last thing she sees before she passes out is a mangled body lying in a heap over in one corner.  Red lipstick still perfectly frames the dead woman’s lips.  (p.6)

The focus then shifts to earlier in the day, and the events that have led up to the bombing.

Sadly, we have become used to reports of carnage in the Middle East.  (There was another atrocity on last night’s news, and one of the victims was a peace activist).  The Waiting Room reveals how people living in these places have to – for their own sanity – become inured to the fear that penetrates everyday life, despite the ever-present security systems.  Bars on the windows in primary schools and daily evacuation drills send a chill down my spine but that is how it is in Israel – and Dina’s husband Eitan who grew up on a kibbutz thinks nothing of it.

But Dina, who grew up in suburban Melbourne, isn’t used to it, not even after years of living in Israel, and she yearns for the quiet safety of Caulfield.  She has idealised Australia as if it is a Promised Land, forgetting that as an adolescent she couldn’t wait to escape it.  But leaving Israel would also mean leaving Eitan, and Dina is not ready to face up to the fact that her marriage is fragile, ruptured by her husband’s scorn for her fear and his fierce pride in Israel.

What makes Dina’s state of mind more fractured is the interminable presence of her mother, who survived the Holocaust but passed its sombre inheritance to Dina, telling her its dreadful stories throughout her childhood till, horrifically, she wished her mother dead that she might be relieved of the burden.  But when her damaged mother finally takes her own life, the horror intensifies because her ghost is ever-present in Dina’s mind.  This mother is like a living, breathing character, who intrudes into every situation.  There are light-hearted moments when she dispenses advice, cajoles, and nags like every stereotypical Jewish mama you’ve seen caricatured – but too often for Dina’s fragile state of mind, this mother is telling Bergen-Belsen stories, mulling over the jealousy she felt for her husband’s first wife and child who were lost in the Holocaust, resenting that she and Dina are ‘replacements’ for what was lost.  In the beginning of the book this mother is conjured up only when Dina is alone, but as the day moves on, she distracts Dina’s attention from her patients at the clinic, and eerily, is almost present to the old shoe-mender at the market.

Rarely does a book capture a sense of place in such penetrating detail.  I have never been to Israel, but I can vouch for the authenticity of the scenes in Caulfield because I grew up there and walked its streets with my dear old dachshund Gretel.  Kaminsky brings the sights, sounds and smells of Haifa to life, recreates the details of home life with a small child, depicts the competing demands of a busy medical clinic and shows us the world of little Shlomi’s school with great veracity.  The only world we do not see is Eitan’s.  This husband is peripheral even though he looms large in Dina’s dilemma about where to live.

There is a large cast of supporting characters  in The Waiting Room.  Dina’s work at the clinic, trying to put the world to rights and ‘fixing’ people, allows for a vivid assortment of people.  This is not a one-sided novel about Israel as victim because it is also a place where refugees have come to escape oppression from places like Iran.  Tahirih, who received a bill from the Iranian government for the bullet they used to shoot her husband, and in an horrific sequence of events suffered sexual violence from Iranian guards, puzzles Dina because of her equanimity:

How can she know how to help Tahirih, who is filled with forgiveness and love and understanding for everyone, even for the very people who hated and abused her?  Dina asked her once where she drew her patience and strength from.  Tahirih clutched at her necklace of freshwater pearls, and Dina watched her mouth as it moved.  ‘Bahá’u’lláh says the actions of those who persecute us are born out of innocence.  It’s always best,’ Tahirih said, trying to stifle a cough, ‘to kiss your killer’s hand.’

Today, something about Tahirih’s face makes Dina think about an old wooden ventriloquist’s doll she used to have as a child.  Or maybe she reminds Dina of her own mother;  both women were so traumatised by their experiences.  The difference, though, is that while Tahirih found God in the midst of hell, Dina’s mother lost her faith forever. (p. 107).

The tension mounts as the day progresses because the reader does not know where the bombing takes place.  There are cues placed throughout the text but these don’t register until the end of the book.  In this way the reader vicariously replicates Dina’s high level of anxiety: will it happen at her home, at her son’s school, at the market or the clinic, or any of the other places that she goes to in this bustling, chaotic city?

The Other SonLast week The Spouse and I watched a French film called The Other Son, a translation of the original title Le Fils de l’Autre which fails to capture the ambiguity of a literal translation – The Son of the Other.  This film tells the story of an inadvertent swap of newborn babies during a Scud attack on Haifa.  One grew up in a Jewish family; the other in Palestine.  Le Fils de l’Autre asks the question ‘how do you deal with the sudden discovery that your own flesh and blood has grown up among the feared and distrusted Other, sharing their customs and their values, and not welcome in your own culture’?  Like Leah Kaminsky’s novel, it is a reminder that Middle Eastern conflict is a reality lived by real people, much like ourselves, and that the polarities we see on TV obscure a much more nuanced world.

Tahirih never thought that she would end up in Haifa.  Here people are kind to her.  The Arab girl at the kiosk blesses her in Hebrew every day.  The tiny Jewish lady next door greets her in Arabic every morning as she beats a rug over the balcony wall.

‘Ah’lan!’ she shouts, ‘Everything will be fine, God willing’.  (p. 98)

Author: Leah Kaminsky
Title: The Waiting Room
Publisher: Vintage (Random House), 2015
ISBN: 9780857986221
Purchased in my latest splurge at Readings, $32.99

Availability

Fishpond: The Waiting Room


Responses

  1. Yes, I read this last week. Stunning novel: evocative, wonderful writing.

    • She really gets inside the head of her character, doesn’t she? I am so impressed!

  2. I like your review style, Lisa. Very authentic :). Would love to feature your reviews in our weekly curated email digest that goes out to thousands of people.

    • Thanks, Elissa. I’ll investigate and get back to you:)

      • Sure thing! If you let me know your email we’ll send the details. Thanks :)

        • It’s at the bottom of the RHS menu hiding from spammers in the yada-yada of the copyright notice.

          • I just sent you a msg through your contact page. Let me know!

  3. This sounds like a great novel, I will add it to my list.

    • *smile* I love it when people say that!

  4. This sounds exactly like the sort of book I would like. It reminds me a little of Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack, which is set in Tel Aviv, and revolves around an assimilated Arab doctor who discovers that his wife was the suicide bomber for a recent attack in which he had to operate on the injured. It’s a bleak read but one that has stayed with me since reading it back in 2009 (I think). Anyway, will keep my eye out for The Waiting Room; it doesn’t seem to be available here in the UK just yet…

    • Wow, that one sounds confronting, I might hunt that one out too…

  5. […] that segues neatly into a shout out to Leah Kaminsky and her debut novel The Waiting Room. This powerful novel is about a Melbourne woman living in Israel who has to confront living without […]


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