Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Waiting Room

by Leah Kaminsky
Harper Perennial     2016
304 pages     Literary Fiction

Dina is a family practice physician in Haifa, Israel, during an extremely difficult time, the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Born and raised in Australia, Dina met her husband Eitan on a trip to Israel several years before. They have a young son, and Dina is pregnant and about to deliver a baby girl. Haifa is a very multicultural and multi-religious city, and Dina's practice includes Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Bah'ai. She muses: "At school the children sing songs of wild cyclamens and anemones in the hills—of a time when there will be peace. People in this country live with a hope that all these wars will end someday. Even a simple hello or goodbye in both Hebrew and Arabic—shalom, salaam—has the word 'peace' embedded in it. The whole region utters it like a mantra, millions of times every day."

Most of The Waiting Room takes place during the morning and afternoon of a single day; a day that there is the threat of a terrorist attack. The actual attack happens in the first chapter, with Dina present for the chaos. The plot quickly shifts back to the morning—before the attack when the family is getting ready for work and school, and worrying about the possible attack. Eitan is quite blasé about it; he is a native Israeli and bombing threats are an everyday occurrence in his mind. Dina is extremely worried about sending their son to school and going to work at her clinic that morning. Besides, she is very pregnant and very tired. She shouldn't be going to work, her mother says.  We become aware almost instantly that Dina and Eitan are not getting along very well. And we wonder if one of the irritants is Dina's mother who seems to be living with them, kibitzing and smoking and offering unneeded advice constantly. It isn't very long, however, before we discover that Dina's mother is dead and has been dead for 20 years. All the conversation, advice, and annoyance with her mother is in Dina's head.

Dina's mother is a Holocaust survivor, and her life story is the source of much of the existential back story that motivates Dina's current anxiety and depression. Dina is suffering from what psychologists are currently calling "inherited trauma." Scientists first began to notice inherited trauma in the second generation of the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Now they are seeing it in the second generation of Vietnam war soldier's children. I recently read and reviewed a book that addresses this issue, It Didn't Start with You by Mark Wolynn. A reviewer of The Waiting Room suggests that "Kaminsky's novel explores intergenerational trauma with approachable simplicity." The dissociation that Dina is experiencing when she separates herself from reality is apparently a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. As an example, Dina wears shoes that her mother wore in the concentration camp, Bergon-Belsen. She wears them on this particular day—a very overt symbol of her inherited trauma.

This is not an easy book to read. I began it the week of the election, but had to put it down because it was too depressing. However, when I picked it up again, I appreciated it very much. The Waiting Room is extraordinarily well crafted, with intensely written descriptions that make the scenes come painfully to life. It was, for me, a truthful, albeit fictional, follow up to my new understanding of inherited trauma. It is, in the words of Geraldine Brooks, an early reviewer, "both haunted and haunting."

The Waiting Room just won the Voss Literary Prize 2016, which is Australia's top literary prize. Leah Kaminsky, the author, a physician, lives and works in Australia, although she lived for a time in Israel, and there is a definite autobiographical feel to the novel. Here is Kaminsky's website.

I especially appreciated the thorough review in Slate.

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