A slender novella that is slight in everything but impact. A beautifully written study of ageing, loneliness and death with a subtle sub text exploring mental health. The main protagonist is in his seventies and approaching retirement. I didn’t find him an especially warm character but I could identify strongly with some of his observations regarding ageing and understand how you can become less reachable as you age and therefore less likeable, maybe.
“Why – it always started the same way – does nobody tell you what happens to the body as it grows old? About the sore joints, the surplus skin, the invisibility.’
‘Ageing…….. was mainly about observing the differences between one’s self and one’s body get bigger and bigger until eventually one awakes a total stranger to oneself.’
’It’s things like that you don’t find out until you’re old: pavements are uneven, slabs are crooked, and you should have appreciated your legs more while they were still operational.’
In fact rarely have I come across such acute understanding and expression of what it feels like to grow old. Our protagonist doesn’t appear to have a name other than Doctor but he is counting down the number of sessions he has left before he retires from his psychiatric practice. Against his better nature he agrees, or is coerced by his indomitable secretary, Madame Surrugue, to take on one more new patient, the titular Agatha. She has some severe mental problems but is articulate and, at times, quite sanguine about her state.
‘I’m buried alive in my own existence!’
Her function in the novella is to guide the Doctor to an awareness of his own state of mind which hitherto he has been unable to confront.
‘….how can you spend your life alleviating the suffering of others without any regard for your own.’
The pivotal point in the novel occurs when she asks him:-
‘How can you claim to understand other people if you don’t even know how you are?
It’s such a pertinent and obvious point and fortunately it resonates with him forcing him to face his own state of loneliness and, more importantly, do something about it. But it isn’t just a one way street as our good Doctor identifies the salient point that has prevented Agatha from moving on with her life. Thus the novella concludes on a more optimistic note with both characters at, perhaps, a better point in their lives than they were when the book began. There’s a magpie illustration on the cover which suggests the paradox of the book.
It’s a touching work simply written, understated yet impactful. The narrative moves easily with a plot that is devoid of any real action but heavy on real emotion. It’s not a tear jerker but it is food for thought and concludes somewhat open endedly with a casual warmth for both characters and reader.
Gill Chedgey 3/4*
Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann
9781529361377 Hodder and Stoughton Sceptre Hardback 12/12/2019