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Free Therapy by Rebecca Ivory: Another shining new literary talent

The characters of these nine stories operate within a system of self-betterment even if they are incapable of bettering themselves

Free Therapy
Author: Rebecca Ivory
ISBN-13: 978-1787334687
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £16.99

Book endorsements are marketing fodder and not to be taken too seriously. Still, most wouldn’t sniff at a stamp of approval from Sally Rooney, as appears on the cover of Rebecca Ivory’s debut short story collection, Free Therapy. (“Arresting and inventive,” Rooney deems it). It was Rooney who, as editor of the Stinging Fly, published Ivory’s first short story. A handful of further publications followed, in the Stinging Fly, Banshee, Tangerine, Fallow Media ... It’s a familiar trajectory at this stage. If it were football, we’d call it an academy. With Free Therapy, Ivory has emerged a blooming literary talent. Yes, another one. It’s getting out of hand.

Self-improvement is a loosely unifying theme in this nine-story ensemble. The characters are hard-wired to operate within a system of self-betterment and -optimisation, even if they are not capable of, or interested in, bettering themselves.

In Work and Charity, a tension between success and happiness is set up early on. At a party the narrator asks an acquaintance if she would prefer to be happy or successful. Immediately the acquaintance says “successful”. (To the reader, this feels at once odd and unsurprising.) This tension hangs over the story as we follow a young journalist asked to go undercover as a “chugger” (charity mugger, or someone paid “to stand in the street and hassle passersby”). She is supposed to be exposing financial malpractice, but if anything, has more respect for the role of chuggers than for her own role. Her position as a journalist, a lifetime ambition, brings nothing but dissatisfaction. The great expectations she has been conditioned to foster, when held up against the realities of industry and of her own capabilities, turn into a sort of nihilism. “Every day I wake up and think: I do not want to work,” she admits. With this death of ambition comes also a death of the self. “I do not have to work at a paper,” she thinks, as she considers quitting. “I do not have to be the person that I am.”

Ivory seems to play on the therapised language and behaviour that pervades in the internet age. What are its limits? Does so-called self-awareness give these characters any real advantage?

In many cases the characters in this collection seem primed to want something, yet lack any meaningful object of desire. In Work and Charity the narrator must convince herself to lust after someone. “I make a conscious decision to like him, to find him attractive.” In Free Therapy, the narrator’s lover asks: “What is it you even want out of life”? Her sole ambition is romantic love – “for as long as I could remember, all I had ever dreamed about was romance”. She confides in a women’s group as a means of navigating her obsessive relationship. The story appears to parody self-help and its surrounding techniques and accoutrements – we encounter everything from vision boards to characters who overcome bulimia through Cross-Fit and talk therapy. But while humorous, it is never fully cynical of the therapies it explores. The women’s group begins to look like a cult, and the narrator thinks: “If it was a cult ... then it’s a real shame because I think my life would have been a lot worse without it.”


In Push and Pull, the two teenage central characters cultivate ambitions that seem arbitrary. At first they are rabidly competitive over body image, each trying to lose more weight than the other. But halfway through, the objective to be thin disintegrates and the narrator finds herself “wishing that I could look fuller again”. Her desperation remains intact, however, and morphs into a need to be desired. A strange sort of agency is derived from wanting something, however indeterminate. Even in a sinister situation with her friend’s predatory father, she thinks: “I wasn’t sure who held the power in this situation, but I wanted him to like me, to like looking at me.”

The pronounced self-awareness of the characters in this collection is sure to grate on some readers. Explanatory lines and reflections abound. “It’s obvious that I’m trying to replicate something,” one narrator thinks, literally stating the obvious. Of course, in a collection titled Free Therapy, the emphasis on self-reflection is clearly deliberate. Ivory seems to play on the therapised language and behaviour that pervades in the internet age. What are its limits? Does so-called self-awareness give these characters any real advantage?

Not all the stories in this collection are perfect, but there is always a sense of a strong voice forming and emerging. There are recurring ideas – loneliness, connection, humour, resilience, intelligence, stupidity – not to mention a peculiar abundance of teeth. Amazingly the story Arrivals, about art, jealousy and a long-distance friendship, first took form when the Stinging Fly asked writers to stay up all night to write a short story. It feels idiosyncratic, yet assured. The strongest, for this reader, is Settling Down. A “damp expert” comes to the rented home of a couple to fix a mould problem, but his arrival uncovers cracks in their relationship. The simple-seeming structure allows for a touching exploration of modern life and love.

With every shining new literary talent, the risk is that readers grow cynical or blasé. But each deserves her due, and Ivory is the real deal. Long may we reap our spoils.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic