Fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 352 pages; 2019.
Elliot Perlman is one of my favourite authors. I have read and much admired his trio of novels — Three Dollars (1998), Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) and The Street Sweeper (2012) — so was looking forward to his new novel, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, published in Australia at the end of last year. (The title refers to a children’s fable that suggests anything is possible.)
A satire about corporate greed, it’s set in Melbourne’s cut-throat legal world and addresses all kinds of relevant, contemporary issues including misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.
But for all its humour and clever, witty dialogue, the novel has a serious underbelly. It could, in fact, be seen as one of the first (or certainly the first I know about) that explores the #metoo movement, possibly before that became a “thing”.
Struggling to stay afloat
The tale centres on a mature age second-year lawyer and former high school English teacher, Stephen Maserov, who works for a big legal firm — hilariously called Freely Savage Carter Blanche — that specialises in construction law.
Stephen is hanging on by his fingertips. His wife has booted him out of the family home but he returns every night to tuck his two young boys in to bed, and at work he’s at risk of losing his job — a job that he hates but needs to pay the mortgage.
One day, struck by inspiration, desperation and daring, he finds a solution to his problem: he offers to help a client make a series of sexual harassment claims go away. This sounds morally dubious and completely unethical, but Stephen has a cunning plan that he hopes will provide a win-win situation for both the client and the women making the claims. And along the way it will allow him to make a name for himself at the law firm, thereby saving his job and perhaps even salvaging his marriage.
Satire with a serious edge
The story has a relatively convoluted plot, is peopled by a series of loathsome characters with wonderful names — Mike Crispin “Crispy” Hamilton, for instance — and much of its momentum relies heavily on dialogue to propel things forward. The dialogue is smart and snappy and often laugh out loud funny.
But lest anyone think Stephen — or the author for that matter — is making light of sexual harassment, the story hammers home some salient points about who holds power in the workplace and the ways in which women are sometimes viewed by their male counterparts.
As one female character explains it, in the corporate world men fear “being frozen out, passed over, overworked, under-utilised, humiliated, being fired and ultimately unemployed”. Women fear this too. But women also have to contend with so much more in the workplace. She 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.
The details of one particular sexual harassment case are stomach-churningly gruesome. Perlman doesn’t pull his punches.
But there’s another important point he’s making here, too, because Stephen’s unhappiness is also the unforeseen byproduct of inequality between the sexes. He works around the clock and sees so little of his family that his wife no longer wants to see him at all. His love for his children is superseded by his “need” to put work before family; to do anything else would be seen as a weakness.
Admittedly, I didn’t really fall in love with this book. Yes, the plot is a bit far-fetched and it relies too much on coincidence to make work, but that didn’t really bother me. The issues covered appealed to me and I like reading books about office life as so few seem to be written about this topic.
And yet I just couldn’t properly engage with the characters. I struggled to properly immerse myself in the story and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was overly long and the pace wasn’t fast enough for me.
Whatever the case, Maybe the Horse Will Talk remains a fine satire about important issues. It has some funny comic moments, is deftly plotted and features some sparkling dialogue. It’s a good book, but not a great one.
For other reviews of this novel, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers and Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List. Note, I can’t find a UK publication date for this book, but a Kindle edition seems to be available in the US.
This is my 1st book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR over the next 6 months. Any books in my ownership that were purchased before the end of 2019 are eligible.