Aristotle posited that a perfect story is one whose entire action, the protagonist’s personal evolution as well as their physical journey, takes place in the space of one day. By that account, Leah Kaminsky would do the Greek mind proud. Her story, The Waiting Room, now the recipient of the Australia’s 2016 Voss Literary Prize for best novel, is a short but powerful work. Reading it feels a little like holding your breath after you’ve heard a strange noise, just waiting for it to happen again. It’s a tense and smart telling of one day in one woman’s life as she struggles with her family—past and present—and her work, all while under the nebulous threat of a possible terror attack in her adopted city, Haifa.
Haifa has been a place under threat in recent weeks, much of it evacuated after arsonists set fire to the fields and forests that surround it, and going back several years now it was the site of many bus bombings and other such terror attacks. But there was a time when Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel, was also its most peaceful. With incredibly diverse ethnic and religious populations coexisting between the Mediterranean and the Carmel hills, Haifa was seemingly exempt from the strife that plagued other parts of the country. It is in this climate that The Waiting Room exists, back in the 1990s, when what she’s experiencing is only the beginning of something different and ominous.
The Waiting Room is a short but powerful read. The ending is broadcast from the first page, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic—even if it does seem somewhat unlikely. Take it as an analogy for Dina’s psyche, the realization of premonitions too frightening to acknowledge head-on and internal monologues too upsetting to divulge, and it paints a pitiful but spot-on picture of how destructive angst can be. The collective memory of the Holocaust and the current heightened political climate are a fearful combination, one that I’m sure many can feel starting to wear away at their nerves. When you don’t know who to fear, only what, it’s easy to create monsters out of your imagination and mask them with the strange faces you pass on the street. Do it too much, however, and you become the monster.
We follow Dina, a doctor and daughter of Holocaust survivors, from her breakfast table, through the streets of town, and into the wanderings of her mind as she tries to deal with circumstances both ordinary and extraordinary. She’s heavily pregnant, misses her childhood home in Australia, has been fighting with her husband, has a young son she’s worried about… Things are not comfortable. And to top it off, she has her mother—long dead to the rest of the world but very much alive in Dina’s mind—criticizing her every thought, her every move. She’s incredibly stressed and feels like the world is quickly becoming a much scarier, much darker place (and through the lens of current events some might say we are well on our way). That no one else seems to see it makes it all that much worse.
Kaminsky’s writing is natural and clear, even when the situations she presents are not. She does an excellent job of describing Dina’s neurosis, her anxiety, and her stoic attempts to brush them aside and get on with her ‘normal’ life. But Dina’s life isn’t what many of us would call normal. She lives with generational trauma and family secrets that throw off her perception of people’s motives and the world around her while also living in a country filled with individuals who must live each day with a somewhat fatalist edge, knowing that at any time there could be a bombing or a stabbing that would bring their existence to a close but that can’t let them stop doing what they need to do.
The question for Dina is whether or not to pay attention to her apprehensions, to keep calm and carry on or trust her instincts when things feel wrong. How is she to know when these choices could have life-or-death consequences? It’s a question many people face on a daily basis, and one that others think they face. Then there are other questions: When does caution border on mistrust border on bigotry and xenophobia? How do we make sense of senseless violence? How do we know when our perceptions are ‘correct’ and when they’re lies we tell ourselves to make it through another day?
It’s a lot of weighty philosophy packed into one slim, light book, but doing the emotional heavy lifting can be a gratifying experience indeed.
The Waiting Room