Waiting Room: a memoir by Gabrielle Carey

This short, beautiful yet devestating memoir gets five stars out of five from me. I read it in one sitting and was mesmerised. It may be short in terms of pages but it is masterful in the scale it encompasses.

The story is very simple and is told very simply. Gaberielle Carey’s mother, Joan, aged 80, begins to exhibit dramatic short-term memory loss and is soon diagnosed with a brain tumour which must be operated on urgently. Carey, her sister and brother have to deal with this crisis which has suddenly entered their lives and convince their reluctant mother that she must go ahead and have the operation. Joan has been thinking about taking her own life rather than go through with this and as her husband had suicided many years before, this causes great distress for all involved.

As she is faced with the possibility that she may lose her mother, Carey begins to examine their relationship and realises there is so much she does not know not merely about her mother, but about her family history. As her mother’s memory may already be damaged, Carey is acutely aware that many stories may never be revealed and a state equivalent to a kind of panic ensues because time is running out. At the book’s conclusion, her mother has survived the operation but has since died.

This is not a gruesome medical account concentrating on procedures although it does include visits to doctors and some necessary discussion of Joan Carey’s condition. The memoir is a moving, examination of wider issues including family and the mother-daughter relationship and the big things in life, the human condition in other words—love, grief, loss. It is not without humour though so is not all ‘doom and gloom’. The reader really gets to know Joan and her family and will care about what happens to them.

Carey writes about the suicide of her father and its impact on those left behind. She also deals with the issue of euthanasia/the right to die. As she is raising a seven-year old son and a teenage daughter, she explores her own role as a mother and her relationship with her own children. It is also about the writing life, about the brain, memory and its connection to our notion of ‘self’.

While the content sounds burdensome for a reader, and while it does elicit a range of emotions including sadness, it does not feel burdensome and I think it would have a very wide appeal because it deals with so many issues readers must have thought about and feelings readers have probably experienced. After all, everyone has a mother and readers with elderly mothers or elderly parents will find the book particularly appealing.

At once moving, funny, sad, enlightening and cathartic, Waiting Room is written very honestly and matter-of-factly without a hint of over-sentimentality. I think this distinct lack of self-indulgent sentimentality while dealing with such difficult issues is a major reason for it being so accessible.

Waiting Room is published by Scribe Publications.

© Paula Grunseit 2011


  1. Hi Paula

    I’ve just been trawling the links on the AWW challenge page to find reviews of nonfiction and stumbled on this one. It sounds like a stunning book.

    One memoir I really enjoyed was Biting the Cherry by WA poet Jacqui Stewart, about her time as a young army-wife and mum in the late 50s, early 60s in Bangkok. I don’t think it’s available yet, except from the author, but it’s well worth the read if it does get into circulation.

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for the visit 🙂 Yes it really is. And thanks for the rec – I like the sound of Jacqui Stewart’s book. Must track it down.

  2. Thanks for sharing your AWW review. This sounds like an interesting memoir

    Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out

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