Alice Tawhai invites readers into a wonderland of workplace bullying. Ockhams runner-up Rebecca K Reilly comments.
Unless you are very lucky, you will probably experience having a terrible job at some point in your life. In a way, all jobs are terrible because it would be so much nicer not to have to trade labor for capital, and to live our lives having fun, and never send emails. But some jobs are definitely worse than others. Some jobs are judging cakes on a TV baking show or being a background actor in a popular musical, and some are not at all, but rather sitting in a drab room with nothing to do and then we tells you that you are doing it wrong. It’s this kind of terrible work that we see described in excruciating detail with Aljce’s new role at The Therapy Hub in Aljce in Therapy Land.
There are many depictions of working women in New Zealand literature and they don’t usually seem to be having a great time. This makes sense since the the pay gap is still 9.1% from 2021 and work in female-dominated industries, especially care and midwifery, is massively undervalued. In ‘Living the Dream’, a short story in 2021, winner of the Acorn Foundation award bug week, we see a young student teacher presenting a lesson for evaluation while his older male associate imagines having sex with her. At Emily Perkin’s Not his real name we get a young office worker who unspectacularly sleeps with her boss at a conference. In Everything we hoped for Pip Adam writes about a woman who somehow deleted an entire database and spends an entire staff party on the phone trying to fix it, still in costume. The jobs these women and Aljce do are all different but in some ways all the same, as Aljce says: “All the jobs seem very different at first, she thinks to herself. Until you get used to it.
Aljce in the land of therapy starts on the first day of her new placement for Aljce, where she must accumulate 500 hours of client contact time to receive her postgraduate consultancy qualification. Already in the first pages, although Aljce seems optimistic about the new workplace, something is wrong with the Therapy Hub, supposedly a one-stop-shop for all counseling needs, especially when manager Jillq refuses to fill the form Aljce needs for her. accreditation, telling her that she does not think she is ready to receive clients. This is Jillq’s first red flag out of about four hundred throughout the book. She is the manager, owner and sits on the Board of Directors of The Therapy Hub. His credentials are questionable at best. She plays favorites with her employees and is the epitome of a toxic workplace bully.
Most of the book’s plot revolves around Aljce’s run-ins with Jillq, constantly being called into his office to find out what his latest wrongdoing is, how she’s not cut out to be a counselor due to her tough and unkind and twice Aljce receives a written warning for intimidation (on an incident where she made a joke with an external visitor, which did not offend him). At one point, Jillq organizes a meeting on Aljce where the therapy center staff gather in a circle and tell Aljce why they don’t like him. She is criticized for her clothes, her attitude, she is told that she does not follow the procedures which seem to have been invented to surprise her and she is blamed for incidents which could have nothing to do with her. Nobody in the Hub is standing up for her, and everyone she talks to in the wider industry says they want to stay out of it. Of course Aljce wants to quit but she can’t because she doubts she can find another job where she can work her 500 hours and she needs the money because she is a single mother and has a mortgage to pay (sort of).
Interestingly for a novel where the protagonist is a single mother, we hear very little about Aljce’s relationship with her children, Pleasance and Liddell. The book forcefully points out that Aljce’s work and Jillq’s toxic hold on her has totally taken over her life to the point that there is simply no room to think about anything else. The narration is in the close third person and alternates mainly between the description of a conflict at the therapy center and Aljce’s reflection on himself and herself, interspersed with conversations with friends, generally under the effect of the drugs, and other people outside the center who mainly serve to reinforce these ideas. Aljce wants to believe that she is a good, albeit misunderstood, person, but she obviously begins to falter in that opinion after being constantly dragged on by Jillq, as well as a man she meets online who cuts contact with her. after seeing what she looks like.
We don’t know anything about Aljce’s life before the Hub, her previous relationships, her family, the father of her children, what she did before she wanted to become a councilor – this plot is only centered on the conflict which is currently taking place. This gives Aljce in the land of therapy quite a different feeling from a novel like Victory Park by Rachel Kerr, which has a similar domestic setting and context, but is sort of the reverse as a story that shows how women can find themselves alone and in poorly paid care and services and whether it is possible to progress once you are done at that location. The laser focus of Aljce in the land of therapy about the conflict and how the tension remains at a constant level throughout the text, make the reader feel like there really is no escape for Aljce, that he is not there is no life outside of where she is and she is trapped in a Kafka before the law situation.
The title of the book is no coincidence either, there are strong references and allusions to Alice in Wonderland all along. It’s inspired enough by the work of Lewis Carroll to get into loose adaptation territory, I would say. Jillq is the queen of hearts with her mass of red curls, her tyrannical attitude and her gang of obliging subordinates, especially Mrs. Kingi. Aljce is Alice, falling asleep at inopportune times, failing to find her way out of the Hub, a friend of a “Mad Neighbor” with a steady supply of drugs. There are white rabbits hopping around a cabbage patch outside the Hub and Jillq angrily leads everyone on the hunt to seal the rabbit hole. All clocks are different. There’s a pink frosted cupcake in the staff room with a bite. All chapter titles are Wonderland quote.
The novel does not shy away from its parallels, it leans into them, harshly.
The result is a narrative world that allows things to shift from a painful bureaucratic hellscape to new territory where things really don’t make sense and that’s fine. Whether everyone was forced out to pick up golf balls in the rain (Hub staff members frequently hit golf balls from their desks) or a tree suddenly caught fire outside after being struck by lightning, it all seems logical. It also makes some of the more relentless aspects of the situation at the Hub more palatable to the reader – the fact that no one ever sides with Aljce or speaks negatively about Jillq, only whenever Aljce thinks that ‘she found an ally, they disappear instantly. , everything seems to be a dead end. It can be frustrating, but at the same time the book tells you not to expect anything to come together in a conventional way and that the Hub is its own vortex with its own logic. This is complemented by the way Aljce thinks and talks about color – she has synesthesia and notices color in everything, her colleague Hattie’s hair which ranges from bright blue to silver curls and as red as Jillq’s herself , the pink glow of the sky and the glow stick that her child sees differently, and the different shades of poppies in her neighbor’s garden, bringing together the surreal world of the Hub and the thoughtful interiority of Aljce.
It’s a book that takes risks, is experimental with pacing, uses lots of explanatory dialogue, and frequently slips between fact and fantasy. While the tense themes and fairly repetitive plot won’t appeal to all readers, anyone who’s been employed in a toxic workplace or had a horrible boss will find it relatable and we’re lucky Lawrence & Gibson created a space in the New Zealand literary market. for less conventional novels. As Aljce says, “The trick, I think, would be to write a book where it could be seen from different perspectives at different times, different layers, and the reader never really knowing which layers were true, or which angle to look at. from.”