Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2019

Maybe the Horse Will Talk, by Elliot Perlman

As you know if you’ve read his Meet an Aussie Author profile, Elliot Perlman is one of my all-time favourite authors.  No other author that I know of has so consistently been able to combine social critique and an exploration of the human condition, within novels that are unputdownable.

As an added bonus, Perlman’s latest novel Maybe the Horse Will Talk is set in Melbourne, in the streets and alleyways of our corporate jungle, our bars and cafés, and even in Hawthorn’s tree-lined streets and manicured gardens where it is said that people tend not to die because they’re already in heaven.

Maybe the Horse Will Talk is the story of lawyer Stephen Maserov, who is absolutely terrified of losing the job he hates.  Bound by the mortgage on the family home, (from which his wife Eleanor has evicted him because he’s never home anyway) he—like every other lawyer employed by Freely Savage Carter Blanche (!)— lives in fear of the regular staff culls and the inevitability of losing his job.    And so it is that when he stumbles upon a risky opportunity to stave off looming unemployment, he abandons caution and walks an extraordinary tightrope, while the senior partners sabotage him at every turn.

Maserov wangles himself into secondment in the office of a major client called Torrent Industries, where his more than somewhat awkward task is to make the claims of sexual harassment go away.  Maserov is an ethical man so this (to put it mildly) puts him in a bind.

This issue gives Perlman an opportunity to articulate the problem of sexual harassment with forensic precision.  The value of this is that men are going to be reading this book and getting the message that (a) sexual harassment is morally wrong and (b) it’s stupid for any business to risk its reputation and the cost of litigation.  Jessica, Maserov’s colleague at Torrent Industries is being harassed by a senior colleague called Frank Cardigan, and she needs Maserov to stay behind after work to be nearby in case of trouble.  ‘Trouble’, she knows, has already been very serious indeed for other women, but Maserov has a crucial meeting with one of the sexual assault victims so he can’t help that night.  And he sees beyond her usual office hours corporate demeanour that she is genuinely frightened.  When he gently asks her about it, she acknowledges that while the corporate workplace delivers all kinds of fear because of the way power operates, there’s a whole additional level of terror and disequilibrium that most men never really understand.  

A woman in the workplace has her clothes discussed by her male colleagues, her appearance, her body shape, changes in her body shape, her reaction to sexual innuendo, to off-colour jokes about sex, unwanted, unasked-for flirting and her reaction to that, fear of casual bodily contact all the way along the continuum, offers to trade sexual favours for career advancement and the consequences of rejecting them, blackmail and every conceivable permutation of sexual harassment and assault all the way down the line to rape.  There’s no overtime, no salary, no perks of the job that make any of that worthwhile. (p.114)

Jessica, who works in HR, wants to introduce policies and programs to redress the endemic sexual harassment at Torrent Industries, but she needs the CEO to recognise that it’s going to cost him money and reputational damage if he doesn’t.  It’s this problem—not the one that he’s been hired to settle—that Maserov wants to resolve, for Jessica and all the other women in the office, as well as the ones who’ve left because of their experiences.  (It made him feel sick to read their statements about what was done to them in this workplace.) His quandary is that his temporary reprieve from unemployment depends on him maintaining the status quo for the CEO—who is well aware of the behaviour of his male employees and isn’t interested in preventing further assaults, only in making the existing claims go away.  For Maserov, keeping his job is about more than paying the mortgage: any hope he has of saving his marriage depends on him keeping the family home.

If you’re wondering about the strange title, it’s explained by a story that Maserov tells his little boy at bedtime.  (Evicted from the family home he may be, but he still comes every night to bath the  kids and put them to bed.  Maserov worries about many things but he thinks that, theoretically anyway, many disasters such as unemployment and economic humiliation are reversible.  But your children not remembering your being around, not loving you, that’s irreversible.)  In the story he tells to Beanie, a jester about to be sacked by his king buys himself time by promising the impossible— and anything can happen in a year…

Well, in a masterpiece of deft plotting, Perlman resolves Maserov’s predicaments while delivering a fast-paced comic novel that while offering a lawyer as hero, skewers the legal profession, corporate corruption, the posturing with the Law Institute Journal, and a-hem, even elements of the publishing industry and their oh-so predictable book-club books! There are so many delicious scenes that I just had to share them with The Spouse over breakfast, and he chortled too.

For those who’ve only read Perlman’s previous novel The Street Sweeper (see my review) it may come as a surprise to discover that Maybe the Horse Will Talk is often laugh-out-loud funny. I loved his characterisation of Maserov’s colleagues in the legal profession because I myself have had occasion to meet some like Fleur Werd-Gelding, born ready to attack:

She had absorbed the overwork mania of the WeWork generation and its celebration of her indentured exploitation by the partnership. She was strikingly attractive with blue eyes and thick lustrous hair the colour of cruelty. And she was no slouch intellectually. She had a razor-sharp mind that smothered self-doubt before it gestated and this, along with a relentless need to succeed, led to a first-class honours degree. She had grown up around floodlit infinity pools, wineries, cattle stations the size of Luxembourg and beach houses bequeathed to her parents and their cousins by previous generations of Werds and Geldings. She had gone to an all-girl private school like her mother and her mother’s mother before her and, like them, she was expected to breed with a slightly older boy from the brother school and to share her genes with his in return for a share of his properties, shares and trust fund annuities. (p.109)

Highly recommended.

That clever cover design is by Alex Ross.

Update, the next day #Synchronicity! The Guardian has just published Elliot Perlman’s address to the Australian Booksellers Conference in June: Workers feel more stress and anxiety than ever before. We need to talk about this. 

Author: Elliot Perlman
Title: Maybe the Horse Will Talk
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2019, 331 pages
ISBN: 9780143781493
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: Maybe the Horse Will Talk


Responses

  1. I can hardly wait for Perlman’s new novel to make it to the United States.

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    • I hope they don’t make him change the Melbourneness of it. After all, we read US books set in cities we’ve never been to…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hope they don’t force Elliot Perlman to make changes for the US audience either. That would be rather pathetic.

        Like

        • Yup.
          And really, I think it sells Americans short when they do this. I’m sure it’s no more of a problem for US readers than it is for us when we read fiction from places we’re not familiar with.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds positively delicious!

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    • I actually finished it last week but I had to let it settle before I could write a review without gushing.

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  3. Another ‘must read’!

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    • Yes, there’s been some top novels published this year and this is one of them.

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  4. Hi Lisa, thanks for the great review. I can’t wait to read Perlman’s novel. Like you I am a fan of his writing style.

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  5. I’m looking forward to this one too. I’ve read all his novels and while I think he has a tendency to over-write I do enjoy his work. They’re novels with a social conscience but from memory they all have laugh out loud moments.

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    • I like novels with a social conscience, and he seems to have his finger on the pulse, at least as far as Australia is concerned.

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  6. This is so wonderful, Lisa! I loved Elliot Perlman’s ‘Three Dollars’ after you recommended it. Thanks so much for this wonderful review! The book seems to cover many of the important workplace issues today. I can’t wait to read this one now! Will this be the year end winner in ANZ LitLovers Blog? We have to wait and see :)

    Like

    • *chuckle* Vishy, I am spoiled for choice when it comes to great Aussie books in 2019!

      Like

      • Can’t wait to see your year-end lists, Lisa :)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Maybe the Horse Will Talk, by Elliot Perlman […]

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  8. […] Maybe the Horse Will Talk by Elliot Perlman (Vintage Australia), see my review […]

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