- Book: The Waiting Rooms
- Location: South Africa, United Kingdom
- Author: Eve Smith
You might think this novel is set at some point in the future. Fiction set in a dystopian world. But it is set in a parallel universe. The “Crisis” happened in the later 20th Century when Furbys and Tamagotchis were still favoured toys (remember them?), and the here and now could be at any point in the 21st Century. However, we are almost there with the threat of Coronavirus in 2020. It is like a sliding doors scenario; this could be – in some ways it IS – our present. What we do now as a world is crucial.
We, in our present society are teetering on the very edge of antibiotic resistance. We hear about it time and again, we are strongly advised to only take antibiotics when absolutely necessary. This novel looks at what might happen once there are no more medications that can treat simple and complex conditions. This story may be about antibiotic resistance but it is prescient in the era of Coronavirus.
A cat scratch can leave a wound infected. Now we take antibiotics to counteract the spread of infection. We are fortunate in most cases. In the author’s world, however, cats have to have their claws removed and they are being bred without claws to minimise human infection rates. TB is rife, STIs cannot be treated, UTIs kill – we know this will happen in real life if these conditions are left untreated. And yet we still consume antibiotics like sweets.
The author has given a lot of thought to the “what if” situation, and what she portrays, it has to be said, is a plausible situation. In her world the older people (over 70) are no longer offered antibiotics and if they fall ill, well, it is curtains for them, decreed by law. At the moment in the UK (mid May 2020), the over 70s are deemed vulnerable and may well be permitted to socialise only after other groups have taken their turn, as Lockdown is eased. In The Waiting Rooms she portrays a society where the government cracks down heavily, microbial security is paramount, borders are closed, and spontaneity has gone out of life. It has become a police state and there are severe penalties for infringements. In some ways this is George Orwell’s 1984+++. Actually and soberingly, it is only a few steps on from the current pandemic circulating.
The chapters are created from the perspectives of three women. Kate, who is a nurse in the contemporary situation. She knows she was adopted and once her adoptive mother, Pen, dies, she starts to have yearnings to discover her roots. Lily is an elderly and infirm woman, incarcerated at the moment in a nursing home – the waiting room of the title; and Mary is based in South Africa, a couple of decades back and finds herself at the point when the rates of TB infection are starting to rise dramatically. She is looking at plant alternatives to provide a possible cure in the place of antibiotics and is working on possible outcomes.
This is very much a novel of our times and a thought provoking story.
I thought the author found her stride about a 1/3rd of the way in. Early on I wrestled with the slightly fragmented narrative. The characters were at first a little diaphanous and I had to keep checking back to ascertain who was at the heart of the chapter. But then the author confidently took up the story and carried me along beautifully.