Decades of spiralling drug resistance have unleashed a global antibiotic crisis. Ordinary infections are untreatable, and a scratch from a pet can kill. A sacrifice is required to keep the majority safe: no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics. The elderly are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms’ -hospitals where no one ever gets well. Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, Kate begins a search for her birth mother, armed only with her name and her age. As Kate unearths disturbing facts about her mother’s past, she puts her family in danger and risks losing everything. Because Kate is not the only secret that her mother is hiding. Someone else is looking for her, too…
To be honest, I am finding The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith a little bit daunting to review. Not only is this an incredibly prescient book, addressing a host of important themes and issues, but also manages to balance this with being an incredibly compelling thriller. So I’ll take the bull by the horns and forge on…
The crisis facing us with the decreasing effectiveness and shortages of anti-biotics has been particularly of late, well documented. What Smith achieves here is a sober and timely reminder of how our dependence on and misuse of anti-biotics will eventually lead to a global health crisis, and how common ailments will become increasingly more deadly, without effective treatments available. The book is framed within this actually coming to pass, where the older members of society are prohibited from access to these drugs, and face a heart-breaking outcome because of this. What struck me most when reading this, with the world in the grip of a deadly pandemic, and depressingly more to come, was how believable this scenario actually is.
By punctuating the book with scientific evidence- which in no way detracts from the ebb and flow of the main narrative itself- Smith presents to us a truly chilling picture of the future. I was fascinated by these little vignettes, which added a real frisson to the ostensibly fictional world the author presents, and which added a vital layer of interest to the plot. As one strand of the book deals with a botanist, and the increasing need to harness the power of previously unused plants and flora to address the global anti-biotic crisis, with at times destructive results, the book raises some interesting questions about the advancement in medicine and science to try and counteract the potentially devastating situation we may find ourselves in.
One aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed, was Smith’s examination and presentation of her older characters. In Lily, who is gradually revealed to have had an absolutely fascinating past, Smith draws her character with a real sense of poignancy and sensitivity, with a salient reminder that older people have themselves lived a life of vitality, passion and usefulness, that often reduces some writers to cliche and stereotype. She was undoubtedly my favourite character, with glimmers of rebelliousness and lively intelligence, that added to the roundedness of her character overall. By interposing her back story in South Africa as a botanist , and the very real emotional trauma she experienced, both professionally and personally, as a result of her work there, this previous life remains at the forefront of the reader’s mind, as we see her in her latter years facing the unwelcome ramifications of her life and work there. I found her story incredibly touching and moving throughout, drawing a realistic picture of a woman torn between the heart and the head, and with a tragic back story that wends so powerfully into her existence in the present.
What Smith achieves so effectively is balancing the book, not only with the factual realities of a global health crisis, and the sharp and detailed characterisation of her protagonists, but a real sense of the visual in her story telling. I found the sections of the book set in South Africa particularly realistic, not only in her vivid descriptions of the landscape, atmosphere and flora and fauna, but also the more social detail with the scenes set within the healthcare system being particularly emotive and disturbing. Smith harnesses all of these aspects of this unique setting so vividly, that it adds a real vitality and interest to the bleak events that come to pass there, and that are unfolding across the world, adding another level to the reading experience. As I have said, with all these elements of fact and fiction working in harmony, it really lifts and enhances the book above the dystopian darkness that dwells at its heart. For this reason, I would highly recommend The Waiting Rooms as a powerful and fascinating thriller, albeit with a grim vision of the future which we dare not look away from.
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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