Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Elliot Perlman’s latest novel is a social chronicle for our time. It shines a light on issues that affect us all – jobs, relationships, men and their attitude to women, children, and marriage.
The centrepiece is sexual harassment, which Perlman discovered in his research, had occurred in the workplace, long before the #MeToo movement hit the headlines. All this is done with a humour and wit that is unflagging; and it’s heightened by a thrilling vein which makes the narrative truly gripping.
Stephen Maserov, an insignificant second year lawyer in the aptly named Freely Savage Carter Blanche firm, is depressed. He is terrified of losing his position which he hates.
Having nothing to lose, he approaches the firm’s biggest client, Torrent Industries, which faces four sexual harassment claims. Maserov cleverly wins the CEO’s, Malcolm Torrent, support and is given a year to solve the “problem”.
So the entertaining drama begins. The workings of these behemoths are cleverly manipulated and Stephen achieves his goal. He is supported and aided by Jessica, in HR, an alluring and brilliant employee, who effortlessly and quickly surmounts any hurdles that arise.
Betga, a highly talented, quick thinking and unorthodox lawyer, aids and abets Maserov. He is the partner of Carla, one of the Torrent employees who had been a victim of sexual harassment and resists a settlement. She wants a criminal prosecution.
Eleanor, Stephen’s wife, has tossed him out of their flat, now has a friend who steps in to give support. This is Acting Sergeant Ron Quinn who is quiet, gentle, older and lacking charisma; although a minor character, he plays an important role.
Life in the corporate world is portrayed with unflinching honesty that is often softened by the laugh-out-loud humour.
Former partners who have failed to survive in this jungle are called “former persons”. There’s a support group, the Freely Savage Survivors, that helps them recover from the trauma of working there.
Although the book is constantly hilarious, it is not a farce. Many who have worked in a similar environment would recognise the culture so cleverly described. Perlman himself, once a lawyer, regards this tale as a comfort to those who endure a similar experience in their own working life.
Jessica employs some inspired use of jargon which gullible characters embrace. There is “idiosyncrasy credits” which might indicate the degree of leadership quality. Leaders can be classified as “leaders as saints”, “leaders as gardeners”, “leaders as buddies”, and so on.
She invents the “hero-worship continuum”, another strategy readily grasped by a desperate employee.
All this takes place in Collins Street, Melbourne, “where the specialist chocolate shops nestle, and the dentists like to graze”.,.
One of my favourites is the phone call Betga makes to report that his bin has not been collected. He warns that his call is being recorded, and may be used for coaching or training purposes or for pillorying on social media.
Important issues are the foundation of the novel. Jessica asks, “what kind of society is it where half the population feels vulnerable, and then, if and when they report an incident, are likely to be silenced or disbelieved?”
Her ideal modern man is intelligent, compassionate, honest, gentle and with a strong sense of integrity.
Perhaps the most outstanding quality of this very fine novel is way dialogue is handled. Fast- paced, clever, unpredictable, it is evidence of Perlman’s mastery of language. The choice of title is perfect. It is a tribute to his story-telling father who told his little son a fairy tale which finished with the title’s sentence.
Maybe the Horse Will Talk turns a spotlight on predicaments workers face, especially women. The power wrought by those steering the big companies is authoritarian and often impossible to challenge. One courageous man, with help from friends, succeeds.
This is a book to enjoy reading more than once. It brims with reasons to do so. No wonder that a French critic stated that Perlman is one of the world’s top 50 writers.
Maybe the Horse Will Talk
ISBN 978 0 14378 1493
352pp; $32.99 Paperback; $13.99 eBook