LEAH KAMINSKY The Waiting Room. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen
This debut novel of traumas past and present is both compelling and surprising.
Leah Kaminsky’s The Waiting Room starts with a heavily pregnant woman picking through shattered bodies in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. In the mess there are the unseeing eyes of the dead and a tiny item from a toybox, rendered grotesque by its new setting: the removable eye of a Mr Potato Head doll.
This is a novel about life and death in extremis. It’s about what happens to people when they have been marinated in horror, and what life is like for their children and grandchildren. The novel begins in the charnel house and essentially never leaves it, even when its main character, Dina, is doing ordinary things: buying a pretzel, getting a shoe fixed, watching her son fish out a Pokémon card from a cereal box.
The action takes place in Haifa, Israel, over the course of a day in which the city is on high alert over a potential terrorist attack. Dina, born and raised in Melbourne, and now a general practitioner in a shabby clinic, is pummelled by rising fear and haunted by the ghost of her mother, her ‘eternal albatross of a mother’. Her unborn baby, meanwhile, is kicking away at her. Dina is often staggering, lightheaded, bumping into things.
Dina’s eternal albatross is long dead but ever-present. She is seen at the end of the hall, peering around the shower curtain, in the back seat of the car. She provides a running commentary on Dina’s cooking and her relationship with her husband and tells stories of Poland before the war and stories of atrocities in the Bergen-Belsen camp. Even before her own encounter with a terrorist attack, Dina’s life is lived as a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder by proxy.
Escaping to the bathroom between patients, Dina returns to ‘another place in time, where she also belongs’:
She lifts the body off the table and drapes it around her like a coat, dead hands clamping onto her life, searing into her skin. In the mirror she can see it is her mother fixed to her back.
We’re in for an intense ride, we know that, but sometimes it’s all a little too much. For example, Dina finds that her gentle Arabic Christian patient, Sousanna, is not pregnant with a longed-for boy but harbouring a malignant teratoma. Considering all the other misery on offer, wouldn’t common-or-garden ovarian cancer have been enough? Did the tumour really have to have hair and teeth as well?
And then, of course, there’s the politics of the Holy Land itself. Kaminsky notes that in Arabic and Hebrew, people bid each other peace all day – salaam, shalom – and yet this is the very thing that is wanting. This is a war zone, and Dina is entirely inside her side of it. We see the world only through her eyes, through the prism of the stories that made her. We are told that Dina’s general practice is housed in an old Arabic building from which its owners ‘fled and never returned‘. Who were those people? What is the world like through their eyes? We don’t know. This is not their story.
And yet this intensity, this ferociously personal view, is part of the point. The world of the novel is a world in which the worst possible things have already happened and will certainly happen again. We’re watching what happens to one human being in that crucible. Dina has her own particular hauntings that we may not share, but we are all, one way or another, haunted. In this, Kaminsky is our Virgil, guiding us – sometimes playfully – through the circles of hell.
It may be intense, but we are entertained along the way. The novel is full of vivid and sometimes hilarious encounters between richly observed characters, each with their own driving life force. Mrs Susskind is virulently racist, has a suppurating sore on her leg and drowns male kittens in a bucket. The hypochondriac Evgeni, a Russian engineer now eking out a living as a street sweeper, is a complete pest. The Jewish ladies waiting to be chosen by the best carp in the barrel are delightful. Here is humanity, in all its minutiae, in all its terrifying grandness, banality and brutality.
Meanwhile, the immediate situation is utterly compelling. You know the day is going to end badly but you don’t how or when or where or for whom. You’re driven forward, to find out.
Leah Kaminsky The Waiting Room Vintage 2015 304pp PB $32.99
Tracy Sorensen is a writer and filmmaker. She lived in Newtown in the 1990s but is now in Bathurst, where the landscape was over-cleared a long time ago and consequently there are not enough birds for a decent dawn chorus. You can visit her website here.
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