Leah Kaminsky, The Waiting Room

9780857986221I had the enormous pleasure of listening to Joanne Fedler interview Leah Kaminsky at the recent Sydney Jewish Writers Festival held at Waverley Library, in Sydney.

I had never heard of Kaminsky before, but I am a huge Fedler fan. And when Joanne Fedler raved about Kaminsky’s book, I knew I had to read it. Before I provide my review, although me to give you some context: I am in the middle of reading Julie Orringer’s magnificent tome, The Invisible Bridge. I am drowning in this book and will no doubt review it when I am done. But, I am reading it electronically and when it comes to the Jewish Sabbath that means that I have to put it down which is frustrating because this is the one day that I have a substantial amount of reading time. I tried the local library, but they didn’t have an available copy so when it came time to read on Friday night, I was somewhat at a loss. I have a huge pile of TBR books, on top of which is Wolf Hall and I decided that perhaps it was time to finally dive into that monster of a book. I did and was thrilled by what I read in the first 6o pages but then my brain began to hurt because of the overdose of different characters and I couldn’t follow which Thomas was which so I decided that I needed something lighter. Sitting next to me was Kaminsky’s much shorter book. I didn’t hesitate. And I read it in one sitting, gulping down the prose as though my life depended on it.

There was just so much about this book that appealed to me. It’s hard to know where to begin. Ironically, what impressed me most was the acknowledgement section where I found a long list of some of my favourite writers who Kaminsky describes as inhabiting the “global village of people who have generously supported the development of The Waiting Room in so many ways over the years.” The list includes Geraldine Brooks, Joanne Fedler, J.M.Coetzee and Liz Kemp amongst many others. I am in awe of these layers of influence and Kaminsky’s book pays tribute to the notion that it takes a village to both raise a child and raise a novel … or a memoir … or whatever genre this book inhabits.

I think what made this book so delicious for me was the fact that as I read it, I had a keen sense of Kaminsky’s own voice describing the various experiences that led to the book’s writing – her relationship with her mother, the things she remembered growing up, her own experiences of being a mother, life in Israel. This made the book very real for me. The other thing which resonated for me, particularly at this point in history, is that this book so clearly describes the very vivid trauma of life in a state of crisis which is exactly what is unfolding for Israelis as I write this. The events of the last week have disturbed me intensely and the protagonist, Dina’s, experiences gave a very personal and vivid voice to what seems to be, so often, so very far away.

This is not a book about G-d, although it does have moments where it touches on the dynamic between religious and secular Israelis. What there is though, is a wonderful and very tender collection of narrative voices, both present and past, which unfold in a kind of dance. Dina’s internal dialogue with her long dead mother struck me as quite brilliant. The tortured experience of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors is delicately explored by Kaminsky in this present/absent fashion. Dina’s own relationships with her son, her husband and most disturbingly, her unborn child, present themselves with stark reminders of how we ourselves behave in these different circumstances and the power of the baggage that each of us carries which has the potential to lead us to destroy these bonds.

The book’s title is another point of interest – The Waiting Room. The bulk of the story unfolds in a physical waiting room – Dina, the doctor’s, waiting room which later becomes these scene of a very different kind of waiting room. But the more intangible waiting room is the space that Dina’s mother inhabits; she is no longer alive, but she is clearly neither dead and buried. She occupies a kind of between space, she follows Dina around, talking to her, interjecting in her conversations, criticising her and often getting in the way. She too is in a metaphorical waiting room between life and death which perhaps has to do with the deep discussion that she and Dina need to have but can never quite master effectively. The layers of meaning in this title are fascinating when we think about the other characters in the book – the man who fixes shoes in the Shuk, some of the shoes on his shelf have been waiting there for 15 years and will probably keep waiting there as they are forgotten by their owners, but not by the shoe repairer. In addition, the shoe repairer himself is stuck in a kind of waiting room as he grapples with his own haunted memories of Auschwitz where he learned his trade and was saved. How is it ever possible for these people to graduate from their various waiting rooms and to move forward into the world? It was this that struck me as so disturbing.

What will stay with me from this novel is a sense of the intensity with which some people live, and the way that for others, the past is inescapable. Both of these ideas seemed to be dominant forces in this text.

Kaminsky is definitely a writer to watch and if you are looking for an interesting, yet disturbing read, then this book is for you!

  • as an aside. My mother didn’t LOVE this book in the way that I seem to have loved it. She said it was “huh” which I think translates to something like “yeah, I read it and it was enjoyable but nothing special’ and I’ve been trying to work out what she missed (or what I missed) and I think that the one thing I had that she didn’t have was Leah Kaminsky talking about this book, being interviewed about the process of writing this book and the challenges she faced and how she dealt with those challenges. I really believe that this experience made my reading experience a really intense and real one and so I thank Michael Misrachi and Sharon Berger who organised the Jewish Writers Festival and allowed me to prowl around and take it all in! Thank you all!!
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