LEAH KAMINSKY is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, won the Voss Literary Prize. Her latest novel, Doll’s Eye is an intriguing story of love, loss and survival against a backdrop of war and displacement. Good Reading caught up with Leah to discuss her new novel.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Germany, 1933. Anna Winter returns home to find a note from her father, warning her of grave danger. She flees overnight, taking her precious doll collection with her, and sets sail for Australia. She lands a job at the Birdum Hotel and carves a new life, hiding her past from the world – until a chance encounter with an eccentric stranger, Alter Mayseh, changes everything.
Australia, 1938. A Yiddish poet fleeing persecution, Alter has seen the writing on the wall for his people. Armed with a letter of introduction from Albert Einstein, he manages his own escape from Europe and arrives in Australia in search of a safe place to call home. When fate leads him to Anna, he’s convinced he’s found his future with her. But a disturbing clue to her dark past threatens to unravel the delicate life she has built on top of the secrets left behind.
Shifting in time and place, Doll’s Eye weaves an intriguing story of love, loss and survival against a backdrop of war and displacement. Evocative and compelling, it brings into question the gap between what we see, and what we don’t.
Q&A WITH LEAH KAMINSKY
What inspired your novel?
Several years ago I was visiting my writer friend, Alice Nelson, who was living in a small village in the south of France. Alice took me to a local doll museum, where an elderly woman sat outside the entrance selling tickets. It had once been her family home, but she had to move out when her doll collection became too large. As I wandered through the rooms, all packed with vintage toy trains, teddy bears and puppets, I passed a room that had been cordoned off. I stood in the doorway looking in at hundreds of old dolls, of all shapes and sizes, seated in a semi-circle facing me. I could almost hear them whispering about their pasts, and tears rolled down my cheeks as I imagined the love that must have been poured into them before they were abandoned. I began to wonder what might have happened to the children who had once adored them – spending so many hours playing with them – that I could almost hear their whispers, imploring me to write their stories. That encounter led me on a pathway to learn everything I could about the history and psychology of dolls, and the novel grew out of this.
Can you tell us about the relationship between Anna and Alter?
At its core, Doll’s Eye is a love story between two disparate refugees, fleeing Europe on the brink of war. Anna is a young German woman, growing up surrounded by the rise of Nazism. Alter Mayseh is a Yiddish poet who has seen the writing on the wall for his fellow Jews. They are both trying to find a new home and sense of belonging, as far away from the racism and hatred they have witnessed. At first, it seems like they are outwardly different – Anna is intent on disappearing, focusing mainly on the past, whereas Alter has his eyes fixed on the horizon, determined to move forward into the future. It really is a case of ‘opposites attract’.
Were there any personal experiences or real-life events that influenced your story?
In several of my books, I explore the morality of scientists and doctors. History has shown that many have been at the forefront of evil regimes. Being a physician myself, I feel an obligation to examine where someone who has taken an oath to ‘first, do no harm’ can potentially go wrong. It’s often those first, almost imperceptible choices that lead to the slippery slope towards despicable deeds. Doctors and scientists have played a major role in regimes that have perpetrated atrocities. As a doctor it is my moral duty to question what leads some in my profession to compromise their morality. In Doll’s Eye I have created a nascent Nazi ring, lead by a professor of ophthalmology, who support Hitler while he is incarcerated in the rather cushy Landsberg gaol during the late 1920s. It was there that he wrote his venomous tome, Mein Kampf.
What’s the significance of the dolls in your story?
When she was seven years old, my protagonist Anna was given a special doll – Lalka – by her dying mother, which she brought with her to Australia when she fled Germany in 1933. Dolls have provided comfort for children for thousands of years. They are ‘transitional objects’ that offer security at an early age. Children spend hours playing with their dolls, imbuing them with personalities and little souls. Dolls help us learn to navigate the world. I have always been interested in what is behind the veneer of things, the messiness that lies beneath the surface. Our public visage often hides our true essence and the image we present can moulded and doll-like. People can behave like puppets, especially during times of war, following political regimes unthinkingly. Throughout history, dolls have also been used by adults for nefarious activities such as espionage or the relaying of secret messages. The Nazi regime used dolls to hide secret microphotographs which were smuggled into Germany. I draw on all this to explore the world of dolls in the book.
Your novel is set in Birdum – what kind of research did you undertake to capture this place?
In between two pandemic lockdowns in Melbourne back in 2021, I found myself impulsively booking a flight to Darwin to join Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an expert linguist, and Alice Nelson, a dear writer friend, on a road trip into the heart of the outback. We were honoured to receive a Welcome to Country by Yangman elders, one of whom offered to accompany us all the way from Mataranka to Birdum – now a ghost town 500 kilometres south of Darwin. This extraordinary landscape and country captured both my heart and imagination. We stayed at the Larrimah hotel, in the same building that had been moved from Birdum in 1952. Birdum is highlighted on old world globes and maps – from the late 1920s it was the final terminus of the North Australian Railway line, originally planned to run from Darwin all the way to Adelaide. But now, only the rusty old railway tracks and towering water tank remain as a memorial to this once bustling small town. In its heyday it was visited by station owners, soldiers, Russian peanut farmers and merchants from miles around, but now it is overrun with scrub. I also visited places like Elsie Springs where one chapter is set.
In Katherine I learned about a group of aristocratic Russian emigres – expert Cossack horsemen – fleeing the revolution back home. Many present-day residents of the town are direct descendants from this group of early immigrants. The Katherine Museum even houses a planetarium built from sardine cans, on the back of a truck, by Germogen Sergeef. He was frightened to eat fresh food in case Russian spies were attempting to kidnap or poison him. Travelling across country with our First Nations escort, highlighted how little has been written about the suffering and prejudice to which Traditional Owners of this land have been subjected over time. Considered terra nullius by white settlers, the parallel genocide occurring on this soil was neither seen nor acknowledged. I felt morally compelled to address this in the novel.
Your novel looks at the disconnect between how we see ourselves versus how others see us. What compelled you to explore this in your story?
The doll’s eye reflex is used by doctors to determine whether someone is conscious or not. I was interested in exploring whether we are really seeing what we are looking at – what is behind a person’s façade and who they really are, as opposed to the persona they present to the world. Often we face the world like dolls acting a role, especially in this era of social media, where image is perceived as all important. This can compromise our true selves. We all hold secrets, everyone in the book has their own secrets to hide. Doll’s Eye is about the secrets we keep and the unforeseen consequences of them being discovered.
In what ways has your own connection to the impacts of war shaped your writing overall?
My mother was a Holocaust survivor, her entire family murdered in the death camps. She came to Sydney on a refugee passport in 1949. My father fled Europe in 1938, smuggled out by my grandfather who spent the war years hiding his family and other children in the forests surrounding their home town. Most of the branches of my family tree have been blackened as the result of war and persecution. Thematically this has had a big influence on my writing, and I feel a moral obligation to reflect on and remember this horrific point of time in history. It galvanises me to speak out against prejudice and racial hatred in my work. I have explored the impact of transgenerational trauma in my previous novels and, unsurprisingly, this subject seems to seep into much of my writing.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
At its essence this is a love story, but it is also a call against racism, for preserving language as the glue of culture, as well as a cry against the cannibalisation of small languages. It implores us to respect and acknowledge the ‘other’ and highlights the fragility of our own comfortable and peaceful lives, that can at any moment be ripped from us. This book itself is testing the reader’s own doll’s eye reflex, to see if they are conscious of their own actions and prejudices.