Aljce in Therapy Land by Alice Tawhai – 2021

Aljce is excited to be starting a new job at The Therapy Hub, a wrap-around private counselling service, where she will be able to build up the practical counselling hours she needs to complete her qualifications. But instead of the gratifying job she has envisaged, she falls down a surreal rabbit hole of incompetence, institutional absurdity, and ruthless bullying.

The reader gets hints that Aljce at some point has benefitted from counselling herself, hence her career aspirations. She is fluent in psychological diagnoses and self-affirmation. And this is one of the aspects that makes Aljce in Therapy Land such a good read – Aljce is far from the innocent victim of a toxic workplace. She is complex, self-absorbed, brilliant, and arrogant – at one point pointing out to a friend that boring people mate to create even more boring people, mind you she was stoned at the time.

Aljce spends a lot of time experiencing life “stoned and synaesthesiac”, she associates things with colours, and she has body dysmorphia. The novel is written tightly via her peculiar point of view. She has two daughters, Pleasance and Liddell, a reference to the original Alice, who are around six years old. But we mostly hear of the girls remotely, and when we do read of Aljce interacting with them, it is of her enjoying the kids’ star-projecting night light, or playing with their glow sticks.

The reader meets wonderful characters along with the cast of The Therapy Hub: Aljce’s friend Strauss, whose stoner conversations with Aljce are some of the book’s highlights. And there is the inventive “Mad Neighbour” – Aljce can’t decide if he is mad, or a genius, or a “mad genius”. There is also Lewis, a man who Aljce has connected with via an online dating app. He plays a large part early on in the novel, and he is an author – helping to frame the story as a piece of meta-fiction. Aljce decides she wants to write a book too, talking about her future readers: “I want them to wonder whether my characters are real, or whether they’re just figments of the main character’s imagination.”

The reader often wonders how reliable a narrator Aljce is – I was a bit suspicious about the daughters till they appeared, and of Lewis. After all, all Aljce wants is someone who thinks she is special, and she is always saying that we create our own reality: “I may even be making myself up, I guess.” But then there is the brutal reality of The Therapy Hub, an exaggerated version of many workplaces. It is a workplace Aljce wants to leave, but with Pleasance and Liddell to support (their father is long gone), she needs the money, and she knows if she does leave she won’t get a good reference: She “wasn’t going to be judged on merit, but on the opinion of someone who it was impossible to please”.

Aljce in Therapy Land could be quite triggering if you have encountered workplace bullying. The Hub’s founder and manager is Jillq. Jillq is passive-aggressive, under-qualified, threatened by others, and supported by an entourage of sycophants. Her behaviour is extreme – played out in a building that “was like a rabbit warren”, with real rabbits on the grounds and golf balls (not croquet balls) rolling around the corridors. All the clocks are set to different times. There is no logic to the rules, or to the filing system, and those who are bullied eventually start to fade away like the Cheshire Cat, starting with their hair.

Underneath all of this Wonderland-unreality are descriptions of recognisable bad management behaviour. Jillq is threatened by any staff member who might reveal her incompetence – Aljce has a degree so is fair game. Aljce finds she is always contravening unknown rules, rules sometimes made up post the ‘infringement’. She also finds she is on a three-month trial not in a permanent position. Jillq, or one of her off-siders, are always there keeping an eye on Aljce.

The other staff members, to maintain their positions in Jillq’s favour, are at best not willing to support Aljce, and at worst willing to actively undermine her. Aljce is astounded that “community champions against bullying and violence could be so determined to ignore it when it was under their noses.” Aljce refuses to become a sycophant, but does try to fit in. She doesn’t however agree to change the way she dresses – which reads like serial cosplay. This aspect of Aljce doesn’t fit with her counselling theory of trying to be a blank but caring slate – but then Aljce doesn’t get to meet with clients.

We only read about clients who have been been appallingly let down by The Hub, and we learn that Jillq is collecting funding for non-existent clients: “Ahhh, the beauty of government contracts and being able to fudge those numbers.” And, again familiar, the work of The Hub has become bizarrely introverted: “A great deal of fuss was made when [clients] were present,  but a great deal of moaning was done about them afterwards, about how they’d interrupted the real work.” The Hub is coasting on “unrushed fake work”.

Aljce is fascinated with quantum physics and there is much in the book about the subjectivity of experience, and the complications of the Internet – at one stage the royals and the Kardashians are used as examples of fabricated public lives – but the message is we all fabricate our lives, “We’re all insecure.” And Aljce and others in the book find solace in weed: “It’s like being so close that you might be knocking on the door of the answer, and the answer’s just on the other side.”

The writing of Aljce in Therapy Land is compelling and disturbing: “She felt as if she was underwater with turbulent schools of dark fish; one shoal going that way, another shoal going this way, another smacking right into her. How was she supposed to know what they were going to do next?” It is also disorienting – the Alice in Wonderland references, the stoner experiences, and Tawhai using capitals instead of italics for emphasis, which I had to learn not to read as corporate acronyms.

The tension in the book is from Aljce knowing that you create your own reality and yet being puzzled as to how frustrated she is with her own. She learns everything is temporary, friends move on, circumstances change. But she also finds agency. She decides that evolution leads to a person either being empathic, or calculating and science-oriented, both types necessary – but it also throws up aberrations such as Jillq and her clan – people with no empathy who were “also essentially stupid” – people who need to be dealt with. The book has a good arc, and in keeping with the Wonderland theme the end takes us nicely back to the beginning …  

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