When Eve Smith conceived the plot for her debut novel, The Waiting Rooms, the world was blissfully unaware of Covid-19.
Terms like social distancing, the R Rate and viral load hadn’t entered our daily vocabulary and people over 70 weren’t made to feel scared just because of their age. To the average person, death from a pandemic was something that happened far away from their own neighbourhood.
Our new familiarity with the effect of a global health crisis makes the premise of The Waiting Room more believable, more real and definitely more chilling.
A World In Danger
Eve Smith creates a world where antibiotics have been over-used for so long they no longer work. Without effective antibiotics, conditions like pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, are becoming more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat. Even a simple injury, like a scratch from your cat, or a mouthful of contaminated water at the swimming pool can be lethal.
Countries respond with travel restrictions, strict border controls, trade embargoes and a desperate drive to find vaccines and treatments. Printed books and libraries become a thing of the past because they can spread infection. ‘Declawed’ breeds of cats become popular pets and entire populations become accustomed to body scans and profile checks as part of infection control.
The UK, one of the worst affected countries, takes even more drastic measures. All citizens have to undergo regular health screening and must show their results before entering buildings or taxis. The few antibiotics that do work, are reserved for those under the age of 70. Anyone over that threshold who picks up an infection is sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms.’ Understandably, the encroachment of a 70th birthday is no cause for celebration.
My stomach churns. It’s a Pavlovian response; it happens every time I look at my calendar.
Those white paper squares are like a game of Sudoku. Each day has a number at the bottom written in the same black felt-tip pen: the one with a rubber tube around its middle, like those used by infants who are struggling to write.
Forty-eight days until my birthday. The big seven-o.
This is no childish anticipation. Quite the opposite. Cut-off. That’s the expression they like to use.
Rolls off the tongue a bit quicker than ‘no longer eligible for treatment’.
For those who do end up in a Waiting Room, there is so little chance of recovery, that many prefer to sign a euthanasia directive.
Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, a hospital nurse who works in one of the Waiting Rooms begins a search for her birth mother. Kate discovers disturbing facts about her mother’s involvement in a scandalous programme to find a cure for tuberculosis .
Thought-provoking pacy novel
Switching from the grasslands of South Africa to hospitals and care homes in the UK, and from the present to 27 years earlier, when a new legal strain of tuberculosis began sweeping Africa, The Waiting Rooms, combines the pace of a mystery novel with a meticulously researched issue-based plot.
Eve Smith ambitiously chose a complex narrative structure for the novel. Alongside the alternating settings and time-lines there are three rotating narratives. One features Kate, another her birth mother Mary and the third focuses on an elderly scientist called Lily who is a resident at an upmarket retirement home (it’s becomes clear that Lily and Mary are the same woman).
In between these narratives, we get snippets of media stories based on government announcements about the pandemic and its effect on the country. They often sounds just like the kind of pronouncements we can expect from the current UK government in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.
… the slump is set to continue, with the budget deficit at its highest point since the Antibiotic Crisis. The government defended its position arguing that any reductions in healthcare spending or arbitrary policy changes would be “highly irresponsible” and that recovery would be “a long term process.
These sections provide important context for the events of the novel but I found some of them somewhat jarring. As a former journalist I thought the style of the “media reports” often didn’t ring true. At one point for example, Kate is on her way into work when she encounters an anti-euthanasia protest and is accosted by a journalist.
‘Hey! Hey you!’ shouts the reporter. ‘We’d like to hear your thoughts on legalised killing.’
That phrase ‘We’d like to hear your thoughts’ belongs more in a cosy interview with an academic than amid the mayhem of a demonstration and is not a form of words any journalist would use in those circumstances.
Representations of the media in novels is one of my bête noires. I got over it in this novel because in all other respects, Eve Smith has created in The Waiting Rooms, a world so believable it is petrifying.
Chilling Sense of Reality
In case readers are in any doubt that the antibiotic crisis is feasible or that the over 70s will be the most adversely affected, a postscript to the novel should provide food for thought. Writing about the inspiration for her novel and the premise of the over-70s “cut off”, Eve Smith points to the fact that in the UK, a quarter of all antibiotic prescriptions are for people above 75 years-old.
A recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health claims that ageism is the most commonly experienced form of prejudice and discrimination in the UK and Europe. Compounding this, we have social-care systems and health services already in crisis and needs are only going to increase. Put all this together and you have the perfect storm.
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith: Endnotes
The Waiting Rooms was published by Orenda Books in ebook format on 9 April, 2020 with the paperback to follow on on 9 July. Thanks to Orenda for providing an advance copy of the book in return for an honest review.
Eve Smith was inspired to write the book after she read “some scary facts” about antibiotic resistance. If you want to delve into this and other issues covered in the novel, such as tuberculosis and poaching, take a look at the factual information provided on her website.