A de­light­ful up-lit de­but

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - Sarah Gil­martin


By Anne Cathrine Bo­mann, trans­lated by Caro­line Waight

SS­cep­tre, 144pp, £12.99

igns that you might need ther­apy: chronic anti-so­cial­ism, a lack­lus­tre ap­proach to work, se­vere de­pres­sion about age­ing, a daily dose of ex­is­ten­tial angst, and the feel­ing that you’re a stranger in your own body. The clients of the un­named psy­chi­a­trist nar­ra­tor of Agatha have a range of dif­fer­ent prob­lems. But lit­tle do they know, as they bare their souls on his couch in 1940s Paris, that their doc­tor is in ur­gent need of a shrink him­self. Suf­fer­ing from all of the above, he counts down the days un­til his re­tire­ment where he in­tends to hole him­self away from other peo­ple’s prob­lems and the world at large.

If this seems like a grim premise, it proves oth­er­wise in the hands of Anne Cathrine Bo­mann, whose de­but novel is charm­ing, funny and packed with in­sight. Bo­mann is a psy­chol­o­gist who lives in Copen­hagen with her philoso­pher boyfriend and their dog Camus. A Dan­ish cham­pion in ta­ble ten­nis, she played sev­eral sea­sons abroad and lived in Paris for a time, at an ad­dress that has now found its way into her fic­tion.

From his of­fice on 9 Rue des Ros­settes, the nar­ra­tor sits be­hind his pa­tients, so they can’t see his bored face, and pre­tends to lis­ten to their prob­lems: “Sigh­ing a lit­tle too deeply, I re­minded my­self that af­ter hers there were only seven hun­dred and fifty-three con­ver­sa­tions to go.” Bo­mann mines the sit­u­a­tion for laughs – a man in charge of car­ing for oth­ers who cares about noth­ing any­more, a mis­an­thrope who can barely in­ter­act civilly with his sec­re­tary of 34 years: “We’d never reached an in­for­mal, let alone friendly foot­ing.”

Things change when the sec­re­tary, Madame Sur­rugue, over­rides his in­struc­tions (as she fre­quently chooses to do) and books him one fi­nal client. The tit­u­lar Agatha ar­rives into his of­fice un­wanted but ul­ti­mately comes to change his life for the bet­ter. It is an age-old sto­ry­line that has seen a re­vival in re­cent years with the mar­ket for up-lit. This de­light­ful de­but cer­tainly fits the bill – two odd­ball char­ac­ters who save each other, and who teach the reader much about life in the process. Bo­mann has the light touch needed for th­ese kinds of les­sons. Noth­ing is laboured, not even Agatha’s dif­fi­cult past.

Some read­ers may want more on this front, but Bo­mann isn’t in­ter­ested in dwelling on the mis­ery, rather in how hu­man be­ings can re­cover from tragedy and move on. There are shades of the best of modern up-lit, Gail Honey­man’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Com­pletely Fine and Rachel El­liott’s Whis­pers Through the Mega­phone. All three nov­els of­fer heart­felt, in­ter­est­ing sto­ries on the hu­man con­di­tion and the re­la­tion­ships that sus­tain us.

As with Eleanor, the un­named nar­ra­tor is strange and out­wardly un­lik­able, par­tic­u­larly in the be­gin­ning. He is a deeply fal­li­ble char­ac­ter: his dis­re­gard for his pa­tients, his fear of be­ing called upon to help peo­ple, his ad­mis­sion that he doesn’t want Agatha to be cured by any­one but him­self: “I know it was ego­tis­ti­cal, but I’d rather she re­mained ill.” The hon­esty is star­tling at times. His views on old age are forth­right and re­fresh­ing: “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, I thought, as the bit­ter­ness flushed through me, 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.”

Other pa­tients make for com­pelling side char­ac­ters – the nar­cis­sist who turns ev­ery mi­nor is­sue into a drama, the griev­ing man with com­pul­sive neu­ro­sis – as does Madame Sur­rugue’s poignant do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion, which again shows the hid­den, kinder side to our nar­ra­tor. Th­ese are all dealt with fleet­ingly, how­ever, in a short book whose fo­cus is on Agatha. Her med­i­cal history is in­dica­tive of how women were treated by psy­chi­a­trists in Europe in the post­war era. The nar­ra­tor reads another doc­tor’s notes from a stay in an in­sti­tu­tion: “Pa­tient is pale, un­der­nour­ished and has scratches on her face.” Given that no one to date has fig­ured out the rea­sons for Agatha’s dis­tress, the pre­scribed treat­ment of con­tin­ued ECT and ether at night seems bru­tally in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

Al­though he high­lights the in­ad­e­quacy of words when deal­ing with trauma, the nar­ra­tor’s abil­ity to voice Agatha’s pain is ul­ti­mately what al­lows them both to un­der­stand her past: “It seems to me you think there’s some for­mula for the good life, and as long as you haven’t found it you might as well stop liv­ing at all. Is that right?” The back story this ques­tion elic­its is sad and sur­pris­ing, but shar­ing it out loud gives Agatha the chance to move on. Her reawak­en­ing is, in Jun­gian terms, “I am not what hap­pened to me, I am what I choose to be­come.”

Anne Cathrine Bo­mann: de­but novel is charm­ing, funny and packed with in­sight

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