Learning from reading Leah Kaminsky’s novel The Waiting Room

Four aspects of this novel have inspired my learning about writing, and can equally inspire yours. In the order in which they are addressed in my review of the novel below, they relate to:

Theme:

When you read, go beyond the obvious in what you first think a novel is about.

When you write, think more deeply about how your potentially narrow theme can be expanded into a universal human experience.

Minor characters:

Pay attention to even the most minor characters. See whether you can draw a sharp portrait of each in few words without resorting to stereotype.

Mirroring reader’s and protagonist’s experience:

Mirroring your reader’s and your protagonist’s experience of someone or something can be an effective tool. In The Waiting Room Leah Kaminsky does this with regard to the protagonist’s experience of two other characters in her life.

Title:

See whether you can come up with a title that has a double meaning, the literal and a symbolic one related to the novel or its meaning.

Leah Kaminsky, The Waiting Room (photo courtesy of Leah Kaminsky):kaminsky

Despite The Waiting Room being her first novel, Leah Kaminsky is by no means a new author. She has studied writing at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, NYU and RMIT Universities and at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her award-winning poetry collection Stitching Things Together was published in 2010 and a wonderful collection of short stories and non-fiction about medical issues, The Pen and the Stethoscope, featuring authors including Oliver Sacks in non-fiction, and Australian writers Nick Earls, Peter Goldsworthy and herself in short fiction, in the same year, donating the royalties from the book to the Starlight Children’s Foundation. She also has had numerous poems and short stories published in literary magazines and newspapers in Australia and the US. Furthermore, she is Poetry & Fiction editor at the Medical Journal of Australia.

The Waiting Room is a deeply complex, haunting and thought-provoking novel about living in fear, haunted by the past, and the continuing effect of such fear on subsequent generations; the persistent doubt about the meaning of home after leaving one country for another for love, heightened by inevitable cracks in that relationship; the ambivalence about – yet fierce love for – one’s children; the ennui of a professional facing the same people and the same litanies of complaint over and over again; the dilemma between choices. Many reviewers have reduced this novel to one about Holocaust survivors and the contemporary Jewish experience, but as you can see from what I said earlier, The Waiting Room goes beyond that in tackling universal aspects of the human condition: the dilemmas of parenting, the working life and the migrant experience, albeit under the heightened pressure of a life threatened by terror past and present.

The protagonist of the novel is Dina, a GP – like the author – and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who has lived in Haifa for ten years, having left her life in Melbourne after falling in love with Eitan, born and bred in Israel, at a skiing holiday in Austria. The novel’s action takes place over one single day, on which Haifa is on high alert after a threatened terrorist attack. Threaded throughout are Dina’s interactions with her patients and ordinary people she meets on the streets of Haifa during errands. In each of those interactions Kaminsky shows a real talent for drawing sharp portraits of these minor characters. The most moving of Dina’s interactions is her encounter with a shoemaker she visits, having broken the heel of her shoe, who entices her to wait for the repair rather than rushing around the streets on other errands, as many working mothers do. The shoemaker, like her mother, is a Holocaust survivor who learned his skills at Auschwitz and who is haunted by the shooting of his daughter while on the run from the Gestapo. He remains serene despite a voice on the street outside shouting warnings through a megaphone that a suspicious package has been found, tells her that they’ll be safer inside.

Throughout her life, as on this one day, Dina’s life is haunted and smothered by the ever-present voice of her dead mother. The mother talks and talks, telling her how to live her life, in big matters and small, in a never-ending spiral, augmented with tales of the unspeakable horrors of her life at Bergen-Belsen. At times Dina’s mother can be overbearing for the reader, but this, of course, is exactly the effect she has on Dina herself, too, and her presence is thus a successfully rendered experience.

Even the character who remains most opaque to the reader throughout the novel, Dina’s husband Eitan, is successfully rendered in the same sense, for he is opaque to Dina these days, too.

The novel’s title The Waiting Room is an adept double-take on the waiting room in Dina’s GP practice and the waiting room of her mind, awaiting the dreaded terrorist attack.

Kaminsky’s debut novel The Waiting Room is a true achievement and a book that I highly recommend. It is published by Penguin Random House through its Vintage Books imprint, 287 pages, RRP $ 32.99.

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