Aljce in Therapy Land by Alice Tawhai (Lawrence & Gibson, 2022), 282pp, $25
Aljce In Therapy Land is a funny take on the dark and upsetting subject of workplace bullying. It is dedicated to everyone who has ever been bullied at work or bullied and controlled in any way by anyone. There is also a mad neighbour, an online romance and many marijuana-fuelled existential conversations.
This is a debut novel from Alice Tawhai, who has previously published three collections of short stories. As suggested in the title, the book resonates in many ways with the fairy tale quality of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, including via the chapter headings, which closely mirror the narrative of Alice in Wonderland.
In the first chapter, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’, we meet Aljce, a budding counsellor with synaesthesia, a mortgage and two children, who is starting her first day on the job at the Therapy Hub. This is the last time Aljce is excited or happy in this job. It’s all down the rabbit hole from here. We soon learn that the Therapy Hub is a dysfunctional workplace run by Aljce’s boss, Jillq, a petty despot who turns out to be a gaslighting, sociopathic bully. Aljce realises she is trapped in a job she cannot afford to leave; she needs to complete a placement in order to finish her counselling qualification, earn a living and keep up mortgage payments on the home she shares with her children Pleasance and Liddell. Side note—according to Wikipedia, Alice Pleasance Liddell was a young girl to whom Lewis Carroll told stories that eventually became the novel Alice in Wonderland. These sorts of parallels with Carroll’s fairy tale writings are a constant thread weaving through the story.
The irony of setting a novel about a dysfunctional employment situation in a therapy hub, where people are supposed to come for counselling and healing, plays into the crazy rabbit hole existence that traps Aljce throughout the narrative. This is a place where no one is qualified to be a counsellor and there are almost no therapy clients. So, not a therapy hub at all. More like a torture chamber for anybody who does not fall into line with the craziness.
Like Alice’s trip into a crazy world of mad hatters, rabbits and the Red Queen constantly yelling ‘off with their heads’, Aljce finds herself in a growing mire of convoluted, made-up processes and rules that pop up out of nowhere. In this place, conflicts of interest abound, therapy clients are not attended to, and a slightly mad boss rules the roost.
The sick workplace sends Aljce into a spiral of dysfunction and increasingly zany metaphorical allusions to Alice in Wonderland. White rabbits regularly bound through the book both figuratively (the receptionist is named Bunny) and in the form of actual white rabbits that Aljce observes in the field outside her office window. The story weaves back and forth on itself with a cast of strange characters and unexplainable events. The situation is bizarre and, at times, makes for a surreal reading experience—golf balls appear and disappear and lightning strikes a tree outside the office, setting it on fire.
Anyone who has experienced bullying might relate to some of the tactics Aljce is subjected to. For instance, in the classic defensive deflection employed whenever gaslighters like Aljce’s boss Jillq are challenged, Aljce is accused of being a bully herself in a situation where she is not a bully at all. Jillq is manipulative and narcissistic, always belittling Aljce and questioning her. Jillq’s conjuring and manipulation have numbed the other employees at the Therapy Hub and drugged them into a state of compliance. Aljce deals with the workplace dysfunction with much of the same surprising patience and good nature of the main character in Alice in Wonderland. I found myself cheering her on to do something, anything, to triumph over Jillq.
Despite the strange and maddening events constantly happening to Aljce, she maintains a tolerant and self-questioning stance. She lives a split existence between two worlds, her crazy work life and her private home life with her children and friends, although we don’t see much of her relationship with her children. Her private world centres mostly around her existential and stoned conversations about the meaning of life with her friend Strauss, her mad neighbour, and her disembodied online boyfriend, a writer named Lewis, who she has never met in person. Lewis’s presence hovers over Aljce in the same way that Lewis Carroll’s influence hovers over the narrative.
The conversations Aljce has with her friends bolster her up in the face of the strangeness she faces at work. These conversations provide oases from stress for Aljce and allow her to contemplate madness from a less threatening angle. For instance, she comments that her mad neighbour ‘was like the Mad Hatter: just when you thought you were getting a handle on the conversation, he pretended that he wasn’t on the same page as you, making you doubt yourself as he went off in a flow of jumbled words.’
Early in the story, perhaps inspired by her writer boyfriend, Lewis, Aljce decides to write a book herself. As the tale progresses, Aljce’s writing becomes a means of dealing with the anxiety and bullying. As Aljce says, ‘There were no true secrets, just different experiences of consciousness. And writing was a way to process that experience, and to be conscious of it.’
Aljce’s focus on the act of writing provides a self-reflexive metanarrative throughout the book. This seems apt since the writing runs alongside and mirrors such a well-known piece of writing as Alice in Wonderland. And as Aljce’s mad neighbour proclaims, ‘It’s all about stories isn’t it? Life is the stories we tell ourselves.’ Who is it that said you should never piss off a writer because they will write about you? Or, as Aljce says, writers are ‘dangerous people’.
The tension throughout the book is so well paced that it draws you back just to see what awfulness will happen next to Aljce and how she will deal with it. This is a wonderful debut novel by Alice Tawhai that would be a balm to anybody in a bullying situation. It’s a delightfully crazy and, at times, hilarious story and an engaging comment on the strangeness of life by a great storyteller.
GINA COLE is a Fijian, Kai Valagi writer living in Tāmaki Makaurau. Her collection, Black Ice Matter, won Best First Book Fiction at the 2017 Ockham Book Awards. Her science fiction fantasy novel Na Viro is a work of Pasifikafuturism.