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Book Reviews Shandi Mitchell’s thrilling novel The Waiting Hours is as suspenseful as it is introspective

Shandi Mitchell.

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THE WAITING HOURS SHANDI MITCHELL

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  • Title: The Waiting Hours
  • Author: Shandi Mitchell
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Viking
  • Pages: 400

The Waiting Hours by Shandi Mitchell is a book that does exactly what’s on the tin: It’s about, as you might assume, the “waiting hours,” which is what those on the night shift in emergency services call the time between three and six in the morning. “These were the longest hours when everyone hoped there wouldn’t be a call, because a call would then mean something would be very bad,” explains Tamara, one of the protagonists, who works as a 911 dispatcher. “If the phone didn’t ring, it would mean people were just living their lives.”

The waiting hours, then, is both the literal narrative territory Mitchell’s second novel occupies and the twitchy, uneasy anticipation of disaster that constitutes its overall mood as it traces the interconnected stories of three people who work those hours: a police officer, a trauma nurse, that dispatcher. Even the plotting mirrors the rhythms of a night shift on life’s frontlines. Set in a maritime city that’s Halifax in all but name, the novel begins with an explosion of activity (the death of a 13-year-old boy by gun violence in an inner city park as night descends), spends the bulk of the middle dealing with the ripple effects of this incident on the three characters (the emotional fires/car wrecks that it starts and that must be put out/cleaned up, if you will), and then ends with the beginning of something else, the reckoning that comes when clocked out and uniform’s off.

So far, so Shonda Rhimes, right? This is, of course, familiar territory in the cottage industry of middle-brow, high-drama television that revolves around frontline responders. Mitchell’s exploration of this world, however, could not be further from the fare broadcast in that 9-p.m.-on-a-Thursday slot. For one thing, this is no Beautiful People Doing Dangerous Things While Making Sexy Eyes At Each Other. Mitchell’s characters are unflinchingly unglamorous: Her police officer is a father of three with a bad back. Her 911 dispatcher is a mild agoraphobe whose only meaningful contact outside work is the cab driver who ferries her to and from her job. Her trauma nurse has a self-destructive streak, a dog named Zeus and a hardened-by-experience attitude to her job she summarizes as: “We take care of them … we don’t care about them.” All three are deeply human, which makes them frustrating and fascinating to spend time with, in equal measure. Here be flawed, broken people, not the redemptive arcs of prime time.

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The most impressive trick of this book – and it is a very good one – is the way Mitchell pulls off a literary thriller that is as suspenseful as it is introspective. Violence, crises and tragedies abound, to be sure, but they’re woven in as the sort of prosaic drama inherent to the lives of the people who do these sorts of jobs. In fact, they’re almost a secondary concern in a novel far more interested in the internal ups-and-downs of its protagonists, the searching, anxious “waiting hours” of their own souls, as it were. It’s a moody one, but it never stews in its own juices.

The novel is set against the backdrop of a late summer heatwave, which Mitchell conjures so successfully that you’ll feel the sticky sweaty languor of an August evening even if reading it, say, on a sodden April morning. As the book switches between their perspectives, we’re reminded often by our narrators that crazy things happen in this kind of heat, which lends a nervous energy to the unfolding events. It’s all building to something, but the wire is cranked tighter slowly, subtly, so that twists organically unfold rather than startle. Through her patient teasing out of events, Mitchell makes ratcheting up the tension into a quasi-meditative activity, a leisurely-if-edgy stroll that steps softly through territories as varied as mental illness, addiction, grief and racism.

Rest assured, however, that you’ll enjoy taking this journey with Mitchell (and the cast of characters she draws with clear-eyed, unsentimental acuity), although expect to struggle through patches of self-consciously abstruse prose (“When she thought of home, the colour was confetti pink and yellow and robin’s egg blue” is a particular offender) and an unsuccessful foray into inhabiting the perspective of a toddler, which adds nothing but a mild cringe factor. These are distractions, yes, but hardly obstacles to page-turning through this otherwise highly digestible ride. If you do pause, it’ll be to savour a particularly evocative passage, as in the one where Tamara remembers the neighbourhood she grew up in, and re-read sentences such as, “The women’s voices murmuring, conjuring names of long-lost aunties, uncles, and cousins, would lull her to sleep between their nylon-stocking toes and crisply-pleated skirts.”

It’s also as a compliment then, that I say this novel ends in a completely unsatisfying way. There are no neat narrative bows or Good Guys Won, Bad Guys Lost. It’s messy and muddled, uncertain and unsettling – but in the way that makes you hungry for a sequel. Or another season.

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