When Walter Schmidt wakes up one morning and doesn't smell coffee, his first thought is that his wife, Barbara, has died in her sleep. Noticing that her side of the bed is empty, he then assumes she has fallen on the way to the kitchen. His negative thinking is symptomatic of his character — Walter is an old curmudgeon who, on every day and at every turn, displays rudeness, grumpiness and impatience — but on this occasion he is right to expect the worst. He discovers Barbara lying on the bathroom floor, unable to stand up. Once he gets her back on her feet and into bed, his whole life drastically turns around.

For from this moment on, Walter is forced to stop thinking only of himself. Thrown in at the deep end, he becomes, for the first time, Barbara's carer and provider. This entails starting from scratch and learning how to make coffee — a procedure which initially defeats him and results in several trips to the bakery. But he perseveres and gradually gains confidence in the kitchen, progressing from warming up Barbara's stash of frozen meals to mastering various recipes.

Barbara's health deteriorates but she refuses to be admitted to a hospital. Walter's cooking skills improve but Barbara becomes unable to eat. As concerned visitors show up at their house "to see Barbara one more time," Walter is mystified by their anguish: his wife isn't dying; she will get well soon. "What are you crying for this time?" he scolds his son, Sebastian, who replies: "The question is, Father, why aren't you crying?" Can this man fully change his ways and confront reality?

"Barbara Isn't Dying" is another short yet substantial novel from Alina Bronsky. Deftly translated by Tim Mohr, the book has echoes of two of the Russian-born German author's recent works which feature aging protagonists: "Baba Dunja's Last Love" (2016), in which the title character finds a new lease of life in old age, and "My Grandmother's Braid" (2021), whose antiheroine is delightfully short-tempered and mean-spirited.

Bronsky's new book is packed with episodes that are, by turn, warm, poignant and acerbically funny. Bronsky generates emotion from the way Walter reacts to and engages with the people around him. Constantly abrasive, he has a fractious relationship with Sebastian, who is "as sensitive as a mimosa plant," and speaks down to his daughter, Karin. He corresponds with a TV chef, finds unlikely fans and allies on an online cookery forum and becomes a familiar, if not always friendly, face in the neighborhood.

Walter's spiky observations and gripes about modern life are a constant source of pleasure: a young girl has "striped talons where normal people had fingernails"; cellphones are "babble-devices." As Bronsky subtly reveals more facets of his personality, her novel acquires the form of a sharp-eyed and unsentimental character study of one man and his blinkered view of the world around him.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Barbara Isn't Dying

By: Alina Bronsky.

Publisher: Europa Editions, 192 pages, $17.