Decades of spiralling drug resistance have unleashed a global antibiotic crisis. Ordinary infections are untreatable: 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 birth mother is hiding. Someone else is looking for her, too.
Reading The Waiting Rooms during the Coronavirus lockdown was, at times, a rather tense experience.
Eve Smith’s debut, set in a near future when increased human resistance to antibiotics has led to widespread death from common infectious diseases, seems disturbingly prescient in the current climate and the tiny details of her imagined near future rang scarily true in an era when a trip to the shops involves digging our your face mask and a simple handshake has become a gesture imbued with danger.
These unsettling parallels are a testament to how much thought and research has gone into Smith’s ‘what if’ scenario. Antibiotic resistance – as the books epigraphs make clear – is a real and growing threat and Smith’s imagining of the consequences of this on a political, societal and everyday scale is vividly and precisely drawn. From the decrease in pet ownership due to fears of scratches to the health passport flashed by a visitor at the door, Smith brilliantly imagines the tiny ways in which everyday life has been forced to adapt to a newly contagious climate.
On a wider scale, the society of Smith’s world has decreed that the over 70s are no longer eligible for antibiotics. Society avoids them – ‘shielding’ has become a byword for ageism and isolation. If they fall ill, they are taken to ‘The Waiting Rooms’ – hospitals where no one is expected to get well. For many, Peace Rooms have become the preferable option – assisted dying being preferable to an ignoble and sudden end.
Smith is excellent at confronting these emotionally charged subjects – death, euthanasia, ageism, societal segregation, bio-terrorism, the policing of medicine, social inequality – and does so with both sensitivity and tact. One of her characters, Kate, works as a nurse in a Peace Hospital, helping those who choose to end their lives. Having nursed through the antibiotic crisis, Kate is all to aware of the difficult choices that have had to be made in the post-crisis world – she’s having to make one of her own as she contemplates searching for her birth mother.
Another character, Lily, is approaching her 70th birthday. As one of the ‘lucky ones’, Lily has access to carers, medical checks, and a carefully sanitised environment while she waits for the inevitable. But Lily’s luck appears to have run out. Someone is targeting her. Someone who knows all about Lily’s past – and that the events of the antibiotic crisis might not be as they first appear.
The third strand of the novel, told from the perspective of botanist Mary and set in South Africa in the years and months before the antibiotic crisis, connects Kate and Lily’s stories together, bringing the personal lives of these two women into the wider narrative of infection, control, bio-terrorism, and government secrets. Whilst I guessed the connection between the women fairly quickly, the journey they undergo remains a tense and emotional one, leading to shocking revelations for all of them as the secrets of the past are uncovered.
I can’t really say that I ‘enjoyed’ The Waiting Rooms – this is a novel that, particularly at the moment, feels scarily real and worryingly prescient – but I would say that this is a compelling and emotional thriller that forces the reader to consider the realities of an urgent health emergency. Although speculative in nature, The Waiting Rooms is a vividly realised and timely reminder of the need to tackle the wider inequalities surrounding access to healthcare, and to address the crises that may be lurking around the corner before they become a daily reality for millions.
It’s a book that scared me. One that made me think. One that made me appreciate all the small things I have and can do. And although it’s not for the faint-hearted, I would urge anyone to go out and read it.
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith is published by Orenda Books and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Orenda ebookstore, Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The continue continues until 12 July so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.