Finding Purpose in Purgatory: The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky

on Monday, September 28, 2015
Of all the strange cities I've visited around the world, few hold as special a place in my heart as Haifa. Mid-Eastophiles take note. Forget Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Forget Istanbul or Beirut. Amman? Nope. To me, it's all about that little city on a hill in Israel's north.

For those not in the know, Haifa is home to the best falafel in the world (Falafel Orion, made with white bean rather than chick pea and about fifty times more delicious than anything you'll find anywhere else) as well as the nicest bunch of guys to get together to form a punk band, Useless ID. It's also the only place in Israel where the cultural melting pot actually works. Jews, Muslims and Christians live in the kind of harmony we all speak about wistfully when we bandy around the idea of "Peace in the Middle East". That's not to say it isn't a city of tensions and contradictions. It's still Israel, after all. It's still kind of messed up, albeit in a very complex way. It is this very complexity that makes Haifa the perfect place for Leah Kaminsky to explore some very difficult issues of history, politics and the sense of self in her wonderful debut novel, The Waiting Room.

The book opens with Dina picking through the rubble in the aftermath of a suicide bombing. Ok, so straight up we realise we're in for some heavy shit. The prologue is short and sharp and, when the main body of the novel kicks off earlier that same day, we know from the outset that time is quite literally ticking. If there is such a thing as the Melbourne Expat Every-Jew, Dina is it. Born and raised in Australia, she is drawn to the promised land by a combination of ideology and love. She hits the ground running, quickly building her reputation as a GP in a local clinic while doing her best as a wife and mother. Like most Melbourne Jews, she also carries some serious baggage. She comes from Holocaust stock and is haunted, in her case quite literally, by the ghost of her obnoxious, loud-mouthed, judgemental mother. It is an interesting device - the woman acts as greek chorus and presiding magistrate throughout - though it might have you questioning Dina's mental health at times.

The Waiting Room is very much about the the way we live in a state of perpetual suspension. We are all, it seems, waiting for something, anything. Whether it be the return of love, the birth of a child (Dina is pregnant), the results of a test or the tangible manifestation of fear, time marches on undeterred. The question, though, is how we go about it. Sometimes, we can do little but prolong the agony. In one of the most moving sections, Dina cannot bring herself to tell a young mother that her symptoms are not caused by another pregnancy but, rather, the advanced stages of ovarian cancer. Other times, the waiting breaks us. Dina watches in exasperation as one of her more painful patients - an hilarious caricature of the typical pushy Israeli - tries to force her way to the front of the queue and then explodes at an unfortunate young Arab tradesman who is there to do some fixits. The book is full of this sort of thing - pregnant pauses and unexpected denouements. It also posits an interesting take on why we wait: the act can be an end in itself. It can be restorative, reparative. As the old Arab cobbler tells Dina when she comes to pick up some shoes, "Repairs take time". So it is with Dina in the end. The bomb goes off - we always knew it would - but it is what will set her on the way to a more balanced, meaningful life.

That Kaminsky should have such a nuanced understanding of the intricacies of waiting comes as little surprise. The Waiting Room took her over ten years to complete. Thankfully, the book is all the better for it. Let's just hope we don't have to wait too long for her next one.


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