I had not heard of Danish author Anne Cathrine Bomann’s debut novel, Agatha, before spotting it in my local library. Bomann’s 2017 novel became an international bestseller by word of mouth, and has been translated into over twenty languages to date. Its English translation has been nicely handled by Caroline Waight.
Set in Paris during the 1940s, Agatha focuses upon a crotchety unnamed psychiatrist and one of his patients. The psychiatrist is counting down the days until his retirement, quite literally marking the hours of consultations off from one day to the next: ‘Retiring at seventy-two meant that there were five months still to work. Twenty-two weeks in total, and if all my patients came that meant I had exactly eight hundred sessions to go. If somebody cancelled or fell ill, the number would of course be fewer. There was a certain comfort in that, in spite of everything.’ He laments being old, and the myriad ways in which his body has altered: ‘And just as the record came to an end and the silence left me alone in the front room, came the fatal blow: there was no way out. I had to live in this traitorous grey prison until it killed me.’
Throughout, he continues to reflect on the following, the fear which he feels in finishing work and being at a loose end: ‘Imagine if it turned out life outside these walls was just as pointless as life inside… It occurred to me that I’d been imagining my proper life, my reward for all the grind, was waiting for me when I retired. Yet, as I sat there, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what that existence would contain that was worth looking forward to. Surely the only things I could reliably expect were fear and loneliness?’
His plans to wind down, however, are disrupted when a woman named Agatha Zimmermann, who has a history of rather severe mental illness, walks into his practice and demands to be seen. Agatha is a young German woman, who has suffered from ‘severe mania after a suicide attempt a few years ago.’ She is striking to the psychiatrist; he notes that ‘Her brown eyes shone fever-bright and her gaze was so intense it felt as though she’d grabbed my arms.’
There is a moral element at play in the story. Bomann has focused upon the ways in which the psychiatrist and Agatha help one another – the psychiatrist in terms of alleviating Agatha’s symptoms, and Agatha with regard to helping him out of his shell. Until he met her, he kept a distance from everyone, choosing to have no friends, and to live entirely alone.
I did like the focus upon the psychiatrist, and his own foibles and problems, here. As novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes, ‘it is with pleasure that we find ourselves analysing the psychiatrist rather than his patient.’ One gets the impression, from very early on, that the psychiatrist, who has been practicing for almost fifty years, has no passion whatsoever for his profession, or for his patients. In his rather grumpy, almost offhand narrative, he tells us: ‘Many years’ training helped me to murmur in the right places without actually listening, and if I was lucky I wouldn’t have registered one single word by the time she left the room.’
I also enjoyed the structure of the novel, split as it is into very slim chapters. The narrative is interspersed with Agatha’s patient records, a simple yet effective tool. Agatha is a novella, really, standing at just under 150 pages. This length does lend itself well to the story; the compactness of the book, and what has been left unsaid, perhaps makes one consider more about Agatha than they might otherwise.
I was relatively interested in the characters, but for me, what let the book down was the sheer lack of setting. We are told in the book’s blurb that it is set in Paris during the 1940s, but this does not come across at all in the prose. There are very few descriptions of the world beyond the psychiatrist’s office, and no mention whatsoever of the Second World War, or the Occupation of Paris; to me, these are major historical events which should at least be touched upon, or mentioned. The novel feels rather ‘everyman’; it could, really, be set in any historical period, or any place, as there is so little detail within it that is not focused upon its characters. There is, consequently, very little atmosphere to be found within Agatha. For me, this let the whole down somewhat, as did the way in which the book felt far more modern to me than it should have. I would have liked Agatha to be better rooted in history.
Agatha is certainly readable, and I flew through it, reading it in just a couple of hours. The story is quite a heartwarming one, and there is much reflection as to how each protagonist changes over time. At times, though, the prose is a little light. Agatha is sweet enough, but since finishing the book, I do not feel like I have taken a great deal from it. It lacked a little substance for me as a reader.