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Author: Hugh Mackay
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

The Therapist is a novel by social psychologist and writer Hugh Mackay about the enmeshed professional and personal lives of a therapist.

At the start of this novel by writer and social researcher Hugh Mackay, therapist Martha Elliott unlocks the front door to her psychology practice. This act becomes symbolic: as the story unfolds, The Therapist reveals the inner world of a range of characters, all plagued by contemporary social issues.

There are the woman in her forties who is desperate to have a child; the siblings enmeshed in a co-dependent, destructive relationship; partners in relationships marked by an unequal power balance; a woman tortured by the need to reveal her child’s paternity; the loneliness of the isolated older person; and the self-questioning about priorities that comes as a career nears its end.

The scenes of the characters’ interactions are played out in vividly described locations on Sydney’s North Shore – Chatswood, the Manly Ferry, Balmoral Beach, and local parks.

The social milieu is presented with an assured style, as one would expect from the author of authoritative texts such as The Kindness Revolution, What Makes Us Tick and the Art of Belonging. This is a book with authentic characters, anchored as they are in 2020s urban life.

It is the author’s expert understanding of the social milieu and motivations of his characters, however, that appears at times to position this book between two genres: the novel and the socio-psychological study. The outlining of the characters’ dilemmas seems almost too fluent and assured, the descriptions of their inner struggles too coherent. Fewer narrative passages and more dialogue, hesitant and fractured, could have alleviated this impression. The plot flows smoothly, perhaps too smoothly, by its very equilibrium failing to depict the difficulty of journeying from struggle to self-awareness and resolution.

The Therapist is, nevertheless, a quick and absorbing read, and its greatest success is in the depiction of Martha’s dilemma: how does a professional healer reconcile the high moral standards required of her role with the messiness of everyday life?