Leah Kaminsky’s novel The Hollow Bones focuses on Ernst Schäfer, a German who was sent to Tibet by Himmler in the late 1930s, outwardly to collect plant and animal specimens; secretly to ‘search for the origins of the Aryan race’. Himmler’s abhorrent obsessions are not focused on – indeed, Schäfer’s expedition only makes up the final third of Kaminsky’s book. The first two-thirds concentrate on Ernst’s relationship with his young wife, Herta, and his deepening involvement with the SS.  

Intended to interrogate the moral slip of a man who took advantage of the Reich to advance his career, The Hollow Bones does not have the emotional resonance of Kaminsky’s début, The Waiting Room (2015). That novel – told from the perspective of a daughter of Holocaust survivors – is fluid with the movement of memory, exploring grief with sensitivity and depth. It is warm and funny, detailing its characters and their milieu with tenderness and buoyancy. This authorial affection does not extend to The Hollow Bones, whose characters feel condemned from the outset. Ernst’s loosening grip on his ethics and himself lacks the expected nuance, difficulty, and grit, particularly where it is the pivotal point in the drama. The signals of his changing temperament feel rigid and fall readily into the usual manoeuvres of represented Nazi behaviour. This, coupled with narrations of taxidermy and Ernst’s pleasure in killing animals, makes the work occasionally feel pantomimic.

This could have been tempered with a closer focus on character, but one gets the feeling Kaminsky is not interested in making us feel sympathy for her protagonists. The true hero, the one that is lingered over and mourned, is nature: rendered beautifully in the birds, forests, and flowers near Ernst and Herta’s childhood homes. Here, the author sets out an irretrievable idyll we can all relate to – one which, in this story, Nazism removes access to for good. 

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Jacinta Mulders reviews The Hollow Bones by Leah Kaminsky
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Leah Kaminsky’s novel The Hollow Bones focuses on Ernst Schäfer, a German who was sent to Tibet by Himmler in the late 1930s, outwardly to collect plant and animal specimens; secretly to ‘search for the origins of the Aryan race’. Himmler’s abhorrent obsessions are not focused on ...

  • Book Title The Hollow Bones
  • Book Author Leah Kaminsky
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Vintage, $32.99 pb, 336 pp, 9780143788911

Good general practice is the cornerstone of a good healthcare system: Australia is blessed with both. Leah Kaminsky has been a Melbourne general practitioner for three decades and by her own explicit admission wrote We’re All Going to Die as a way to address her own fear of death. Her beloved mother was ‘the only leaf left dangling from her charred family tree, having survived the horrors of Bergen-Belsen’. She emigrated to Australia with a single suitcase and a butterfly marcasite brooch, now worn by Kaminsky in remembrance. Kaminsky’s parents met in Melbourne, worked hard, made do, like many in the Jewish community. They wanted Kaminsky to become a lawyer, where her capacity of empathy may have been stifled, wasted. Fortunately, she chose to do medicine. Thousands of patients in Melbourne have every reason to applaud her choice.

The book’s front cover, among the butterflies, bears a quote from the New York Times by Mary Roach, best-selling author of the unfortunately titled Stiff (2003): ‘A beautiful, brave, inspiring work. Required reading for anyone who plans to die.’ This is routine gush: the book is engaging but by no stretch of the imagination beautiful, the eye of the beholder notwithstanding. It is brave, in that the author examines her own fears and responses, openly, frankly, and self-critically. Inspiring no, but a very useful book for ‘anyone who plans to die’, and who might need help for a besetting fear of death, as shared by the author.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title John Funder reviews 'We’re all going to die' by Leah Kaminsky
  • Contents Category Society
  • Book Title We’re all going to die
  • Book Author Leah Kaminsky
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio HarperCollins $27.99 pb, 293 pp, 9781460749999

'Freg nisht dem royfe, freg dem khoyle – Don't ask the doctor, ask the patient,' my grandmother says in Yiddish, one of eight languages at her disposal, having grown up in Europe during World War II and migrated as a teenager to the multilingual melting pot of Israel. I smile and ask her for another gem. My grandmother obliges, this time with a juicy-sounding Bulgarian phrase with a similar meaning: 'Ne pitai uchilo, pitai petilo – Don't ask the learned, ask the experienced.'

The word patient comes from the Latin verb pati, meaning to suffer or endure. So do patience, passion, and compassion. The notion of receiving medical treatment is inherently linked in the English language to suffering – and to waiting.

In The Waiting Room, the first novel of author–doctor Leah Kaminsky, the link is suggested as early as the epigraph page, where the last entry in Katherine Mansfield's Journal reads: 'We all fear when we are in waiting rooms. Yet we all must pass beyond them ...' Throughout the book, the setting of a doctor's waiting room serves as an extended metaphor for a state of restless transience, and echoes the psychological enclosure of its protagonist, Dr Dina Ronen.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Naama Amram reviews 'The Waiting Room' by Leah Kaminsky
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title The Waiting Room
  • Book Author Leah Kaminsky
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Vintage, $32.99 pb, 304 pp, 9780857986221