Anne Cathrine Bomann

Sceptre, £9.99

Short but satisfying, Agatha was published in Denmark two years ago and arrives here in a translation by Caroline Waight as a tribute to the power of spare, carefully-weighed prose to bring a character off the page and into lugubrious life.

It takes place in 1948, in France, where an unnamed 72-year-old psychiatrist is preparing for his retirement in five months’ time. Five months means 800 sessions, and he’s counting down every one that stands between him and the day he can leave his patients behind at last. But as much as he wants to escape their monotonous complaints, the Doctor has nagging doubts. He lives alone, in his childhood home, chained to a life of routine. The familiarity of the noises made by his next-door neighbour bring him comfort, but he’s never spoken to him. He’s never been in love.

When his patient Mme Brié tells him: “You can end up a very small creature if nobody cares about you. Sometimes I wonder if such a creature is even a person at all,” she hits a nerve. With no friends and few interests other than classical music (of which he admits he has no deep understanding), he realises that the “reward” of retirement is an illusion. His life will cease to have meaning once he stops doing his job, and he has nothing to look forward to but loneliness, fear, increasing decrepitude and death.

But then, just as he’s started his countdown to retirement, his secretary adds a new patient to his roster. The Doctor is annoyed, as there won’t be time to complete her treatment in the time available. Nevertheless, he relents and begins sessions with Agatha Zimmermann, a pale German woman diagnosed with manic depression whose “brown eyes shone fever-bright” and whose “gaze was so intense it felt as though she’d grabbed my arms”. As Agatha’s treatment continues, her sessions become the only points of the week that matter to him, and his excitement at seeing her throws the despair surrounding the rest of his life into even sharper relief.

Agatha herself never quite springs off the page in the same way. She’s a means for the Doctor to find himself rather than a character with agency in her own right, thus veering rather too close to Manic - literally- Pixie Dream Girl territory for comfort. There’s a book to be written about her side of this relationship, her spell in a psychiatric hospital and the husband we see only once, literally glimpsed through a window.

That aside, in the Doctor, this short, uplifting book brings us a more fully-realised character than most authors could manage with three times the room, and some painfully hard-won moments of genuine human contact in an arid life. If you’re the kind of person who visualises novels while reading them, you could easily picture Ian McKellen as the Doctor, his sonorous but gravelly tones capturing the frayed, beaten-down elegance in his character’s every measured expression of regret, uncertainty, desperation and ultimately hope.