Israeli setting for debut novel

Author Leah Kaminsky

LIKE Dina, the protagonist in her debut novel The Waiting Room, Leah Kaminsky is a family doctor whose mother survived the Holocaust.

Also like Dina, Kaminsky grew up in Melbourne, married an Israeli and has lived through the terrors of an intifada.

But there most similarities end.

Unlike the fraught, anguished Dina, Kaminsky positively shimmers with what believers in the extra-sensory call a great aura. And while she has drawn much from her own life, there is a large gulf between fact and fiction.

“The only part of my book that is autobiographical is the prologue, and the scene it describes is exactly what happened between me and my mother,” reveals the Melbourne physician and author.

“I know it sounds bizarre, but if you Google ‘nail clippings’ and ‘Jewish’ you’ll learn why my mother insisted I burn those clippings. It’s Kabbalah.”

It took Kaminsky more than a decade to complete the novel that will be released by Random House’s Vintage books on September 1, although the big event will be on August 29 when the 2015 Sydney Jewish Writers Festival opens with the launch of The Waiting Room.

“It’s such an honour and I’m a bit overwhelmed by it,” confesses Kaminsky, who will also moderate a panel on historical fiction. No doubt her novel will figure prominently.

Set mostly in Haifa during the Second Intifada and dominated by one climactic day in May 2001 – during which a heavily pregnant Dina grapples with horrors past and present, her teetering marriage, demanding patients and above all, the persistent ghost of her mother – The Waiting Room exudes white-hot urgency – remarkable given its long gestation.

“I lost count of the drafts for my novel and had almost abandoned it when a friend suggested I should do a master’s degree in creative writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts,” explains Kaminsky.

The mother of three – Alon, 22, Ella, 21 and Maia, 16 – thought she had Buckley’s chance, but applied anyway. To her amazement, she was accepted. Then came the really tough bit.

“My husband Yohanan was happy for me until I told him I’d need to go to Vermont,” she recalls. ‘That’s going to be difficult,’ he said. ‘You’ll be stuck in traffic for an hour each way.’

“‘Um, not Vermont, near Mitcham,’ I said. ‘Vermont, USA.’ That course was the turning point. I had a brilliant adviser, a real Southern gentleman called Clint McCown, and by the time I’d finished the master’s, I’d finished the book.”

Kaminsky’s manuscript for The Waiting Room won an Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship, was also a finalist in the international William Wisdom-William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition and, most thrilling, was snapped up by a leading publisher.

“I just sobbed when I got the news,” says the author. The high emotion was understandable, although Kaminsky is no literary novice. She is poetry and fiction editor of the Medical Journal of Australia, has won a slew of awards and grants for her writing, and proudly notes that she has three books, including The Waiting Room, being published over a 12-month period.

Cracking The Code, released in April by Vintage Australia, was the first. Written in collaboration with Melbourne couple Stephen and Sally Damiani, it is a remarkable memoir about the Damianis’ unrelenting quest to identify and ultimately cure their young son Massimo’s mystery disease.

“Stephen Damiani has just been awarded an OAM for his extraordinary efforts to save Massimo, and Cracking the Code has been optioned for a film,” says Kaminsky excitedly.

Kaminsky was the Damianis’ GP and tells the story of the dramatic breakthroughs in medical science as the family embarked on a roller-coaster journey across several countries.

Also likely to create a stir will be the third (non-fiction) book that she is working on – We’re All Going to Die: A Matter of Life and Death, which will be published by HarperCollins in March 2016.

Kaminsky calls it “that rare and wonderful thing – a joyful book about death”. It may well be an antidote to The Waiting Room, whose first chapter shocks with carnage on a Haifa street, revisits the Holocaust in searing detail and whose most vocal character is that intrusive ghost.

“Dina has internalised her mother,” says Kaminsky. “She didn’t want to hear or remember her mother’s stories, so now she’s bombarded with them.

“My mother was 21 and the sole survivor of her family when she emerged from Bergen-Belsen. She was one of four women who worked there in the kitchens, cooking for the Nazis. That’s what saved her.

“My father came to Australia from Poland in 1938 and he was a survivor too. He was in love with communism, so in 1937 he tied red ribbons on a pigeon’s legs and got thrown into a Vilna prison, where he was tortured. His father saved him by bribing a guard with vodka and getting my dad onto a ship.”

Kaminsky says she was well into adulthood before she realised how profoundly her parents’ experiences had affected her.

“I didn’t understand the concept of trans-generational trauma or the moral imperative of bearing witness. I do now. I have patients whose parents went through the Vietnam War and I’ve no doubt that all that pain has a trickle-down effect.”

For The Waiting Room, Kaminsky drew heavily on her experiences with patients at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, where she worked before returning to Melbourne with her family in 2002.

“I treated victims of terror attacks and battered Muslim women, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, trendy yuppies and Russians who’d made aliyah,” she says.

“I recorded it all by writing journals in long-hand. My novel had its germination in those stories.”

The Waiting Room is being published by Vintage Books, $32.99 (rrp).

The Sydney launch is on August 29 at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival at Waverley Library at 7.15pm.

The Melbourne launch is on September 1 at Readings, 112 Acland St, St Kilda at 6.30pm.

REPORT by Zelda Cawthorne