Kaminsky’s ‘The Waiting Room’ deftly probes the effects of trauma

The Waiting Room is an intense portrait of a woman unravelling and an intriguing study of the complexity of the mother-daughter bond. It also explores the legacy of the Holocaust and the ripple effect of its damage: How hard is it for a child of a Holocaust survivor to carve out her own identity? What trauma is passed on to her? How might she carry the burden of her parents’ past? Can she ever be free of the fear and the grief? Will her children also carry the weight?

The novel takes place over the course of one day in 2001 in the life of Dr Dina Ronen, a GP who lives and works in Haifa, Israel. Dina was born in Australia, brought up in a Jewish enclave of Melbourne to Polish Holocaust survivors, and moved to Israel in an attempt to carve out a new life. Some years later, during the second intifada and the terrorism that followed the collapse of the Camp David peace talks, it’s not going well for her: ‘She is tired of this country and its new breed of Jew, outwardly strong and so in-your-face. But more than that, she’s sick of herself: the clichéd, cowering Diaspora Jew, always waiting for some catastrophe.’

Dina has a school-aged son, her second pregnancy is well advanced and her relationship with her husband, Eitan, is at boiling point. Something’s got to give. Early in the day, it’s the heel of her shoe—an old shoe that was once her mother’s and that she’s reticent to part with. She makes a mad dash out of her busy surgery to get it fixed.

Coiling of psyches

The ghost of Dina’s dead mother follows her through the day and badgers her with memories and unwanted advice. This harping has accompanied Dina for as long as she can remember—and we start to see the close and claustrophobic coiling of Dina’s and her mother’s psyches.

We learn that Dina’s mother was both: the bereaved and traumatised little girl who lost her own mother to the Holocaust but survived it herself; and the terrified mother who was overprotective and hypercritical of her daughter. The cocktail carries freight. Her mother’s ghost insists that Dina appreciates the life she’s been granted and does not throw away the family she’s established in Haifa with her husband and son. It’s a tough call under the circumstances.

Her mother’s hectoring, the ever-present threat of terrorist attacks, her failing marriage and having to deal with the illnesses and eccentricities of her patients, is starting to unhinge her. Dina imagines terror lurking everywhere and rushes to her son Shlomi’s school—certain he is in danger. (He is at risk in the strife-filled nation he lives in—but not from what Dina imagines. As her mother said when Shlomi was born, ‘He’s already swaddled in battle fatigues.’)

As Dina’s instability is laid bare, so too is the tragedy of a country pulling apart at the seams and injuring its people. It is not hard to see why she wants to take her son and new baby away from the conflict in Israel to the peaceful suburbs of Australia ‘to have a childhood free from the hold of dark shadows she was unable to relinquish as a young girl’.

Eitan disagrees with Dina about returning to Australia and the couple have a heated exchange.

‘“Do you honestly think Melbourne is that much safer? At least here in Israel people know how to live their lives as proud Jews; they don’t shut themselves up and hide away from the world in comfortable, suburban ghettos.”

‘“Oh,” she snarls, “I almost forgot. Israelis don’t do relaxed. They’re too addicted to their own adrenaline.”’

Powerful scenes

One extremely powerful scene in The Waiting Room is when a younger Dina imagines she can stop the train that is taking her mother and grandmother to Bergen-Belsen.

Inevitably, she fails.

Caught in this pivotal moment, Dina thinks, ‘Now is the time to act. It is this moment that will change their lives forever … She calls out to her mother, trying to shout across time, as if Dina has the power to pierce history with one scream.

‘Once they are on [the train], the door is slammed shut and bolted tight. Dina watches as the death car rattles off into the distance, knowing she can’t change history.’

Other moments prove similarly immutable. Dina can’t change the time a soldier ‘jettisoned’ her mother’s tiny nephew into the air and the baby’s ‘bird-like skull’ is smashed against a brick wall. She can’t erase the grief of one of her patients who fled to Israel from Iran after she received the bill for the bullets used by the firing squad to execute her husband in a Tehran prison.

Compassion fatigue

Like Dina, Kaminsky is a family doctor and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She also lived in Israel for some time. While it would be intriguing to know how else Dina Ronen’s and Leah Kaminsky’s stories may converge, it is not essential in understanding the novel.

Kaminsky is an award-winning writer and is Poetry & Fiction Editor at the Medical Journal of Australia. She lives and writes in Australia and enjoys a stellar network of writing friends and advisors here and across the world (J. M. Coetzee, Geraldine Brooks and Jerome Groopman to name a few of many). Her non-fiction collaboration with Stephen and Sally Damiani, Cracking the Code, has been #1 on the Amazon Bestseller list and is described as ‘a wonderful family memoir and the story of some mind-blowing discoveries in medicine’. These discoveries include the development of a diagnostic tool that will revolutionise diagnoses and treatments of diseases as complex and rare as the Damiani’s son’s leukodystrophy to widespread diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Kaminsky also conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician-writers, which starred on Booklist (Knopf US 2012).

Her next book of non-fiction, We’re All Going to Die, will be published by Harper Collins Australia in June 2016. The book aims to show people, ‘how, by facing and accepting our coming death, we can all learn to live in a more vital, fearless and truthful way, embracing life’.

Dina is a doctor suffering from compassion fatigue. She’s worn out from being ‘a listener, a therapist, a fixer, a priest, a mother, a confidante, a bloody miracle worker for all of them [her patients]’ and now weeps privately for herself and her own mortality.

She also feels secretly powerful when she breaks bad news to her patients—relieved that it’s not her life that hangs in the balance this time. She is disgusted by the excitement she feels at her short-lived immunity, but also knows that ‘mortality lurks, always hiding around the corner, ready to surprise her’.

I suspect that many people’s awareness of their mortality hums along in the background most of the time—spiking now and again to cause anxiety. To extrapolate from Dina’s experience: An acute awareness of death and life’s fragility dominates when you are both the child of a Holocaust survivor and a doctor. And it can be a heavy load.

The leaven of humour

Kaminsky’s control of her material is enviable. She confidently broaches significant themes as she shows how an individual can implode under extreme stress. I was especially impressed by her skilful use of humour to leaven the loaf. There is real pleasure to be found in her quirky cameos. The pesky street sweeper Evgeni, the forthright receptionist Yael, and the racist Mrs Susskind are just a few of the vignettes that add zest to the dough.

I also loved Dina’s description of her mother’s Jewish friends in Melbourne ‘with their dried-up poets’ souls, the elegant European women turned neurotic suburban housewives, wearing aprons and sprinkling Bex powders onto the back of their tongue, downing them with a swig of sherry; all beautifully manicured and utterly mad.’ Superb!

The Waiting Room is a unique novel—gutsy and arresting. It’s a penetrating study of the effects of trauma—encountered personally and passed on. Its strength comes from Kaminsky’s empathetic understanding of human nature and her unflinching portrayals of her characters. Deep work has yielded a powerful story—that shows how fearing terror at every turn is no way to live life. It’s a tale for our times and I’d urge you to read it.

The Waiting Room
Leah Kaminsky
Random House

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