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Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz review – richly comic takedown of the wellness industry

The three main characters in Work-Life Balance, Aisha Franz’s mordantly funny new graphic novel, are connected by one woman: a therapist called Dr Sharifi, whose eyes, in time-long comic book fashion, can never be seen behind her round, outsize spectacles. Dr Sharifi dresses a bit like the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (AKA the princess of polka dots), and wears her black hair in an outre top-knot, both of which suggest from the off that she might be more interested in the pose than in really listening to anyone’s problems – and yes, she is always watching the clock, cutting off her clients mid-sentence if necessary. But her obvious boredom at their various states of mind (“the therapy bundle your employer purchased is over,” she’ll tell them, reaching casually for her mobile) is only one side of the coin. Flip it over, and we find her real passion, which is emphatically herself – and oh, if only she had more time to spend with this most fascinating of patients!

Where does self-obsession begin? And where, exactly, does it take us? Franz, a German cartoonist and illustrator whose last book, Shit Is Real, was an LA Times book prize finalist, has an expert eye for the neuroticism that is born of the digital age, and in this comic (translated from German by Nicholas Houde) she goes after the relentless optimisation and the untrammelled boastfulness it encourages in us. Who can possibly withstand the onslaught of these things? Who wouldn’t be taken over by exhaustion and envy? Certainly, none of her characters can do it, which is why they end up seeing Dr Sharifi.

A page from Work-Life Balance

Anita wants to make ceramic creations as sought after by the art world as those of her studio mate, but must get by making bowls to flog on Etsy. Sandra is a wannabe wellness influencer who can barely get out of bed in the mornings – her Insta Reels will just have to wait – and who puts what zingy energy she does have into sexual harassment at the office where she works as an administrator. As for Dex, having had a project rejected by a friend who works at a groovy startup – the more outwardly warm and liberal the workplace, the more cold and ruthless the bosses – he spends his time hacking and working as a bike courier.

Dr Sharifi does none of them any good, and their angry, angsty encounters with her are richly comic; if you’re suspicious of therapy, or have had a bad experience doing it, you’ll relish every moment. But though Franz’s style as a cartoonist is ever exuberant, there’s desperation, too, in the gap between what her characters present to the world and the reality, and every reader will recognise it. Franz replicates this duality visually, some of her pages appearing as mere sketches and others as solidly colourful and complete. Her conviction (it may be her obsession) is that modern life is lonely. But as she also tells us, the antidote can’t possibly lie with the wellness industry or any of its associated offshoots – those things are products, not cures – and the jokes she makes at their expense are both well-aimed and hilarious.

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