Books

Elliot Perlman
Maybe the Horse Will Talk

Elliot Perlman’s new novel, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, centres on a fable that the protagonist, one Stephen Maserov, tells his sons. In the story a tyrannical king decides he no longer finds his jester funny. Realising his life is at risk, the jester offers the king a compromise. Give me a year and your best horse, he says, and I will show you something extraordinary. I will teach the horse to talk.

The jester, of course, is buying himself time – to work out another solution, or simply to wait for a miracle. “Maybe the horse will talk,” whispers Maserov, as much to himself as to his children. As a downtrodden lawyer at a soul-destroying firm in Melbourne – named Freely Savage Carter Blanche – he, too, has set himself a seemingly impossible task. Facing the prospect of being fired, he has promised to get rid of the sexual harassment claims levelled against his firm’s biggest client.

As Maserov digs deeper, he begins to question his own morality – as does his bickering estranged wife, Eleanor. The sexual misconduct in question, as Perlman aptly notes, is less about the sex than “the arbitrary exercise of power”. The stories Maserov discovers are shocking: not just of harassment but of outright assault and attempted oral rape set against a culture of rampant male entitlement.

Studies have found that psychopaths are more prevalent among chief executives, and Perlman, a former barrister, leans into the stereotype heavily. Maserov’s bosses are cruel, calculating and corrupt. Sexual harassment is dismissed as “boys will be boys” in this nasty world of profits and powerful men.

Exacerbating this, Perlman’s depiction of corporate life can seem overly exaggerated: Maserov, only half joking, compares parts of his firm to the Stasi; another character likens the men in her office to “feral dogs” who use women as “stress balls”. While Perlman is aiming for high drama – as well as an exposé of workplace sexism – the result is the opposite: a dehumanisation of the central players, in particular those deemed “bad”. Hamilton, the firm’s “partner among partners”, is feared by everyone, yet in his dialogue he comes across as little more than a cardboard cutout.

Ultimately, while the novel has plenty of black humour, spending time with the kind of people who inspire a survivors’ group of past employees (“Freely Savage Survivors”) is, to put it lightly, a struggle in itself.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Vintage, 352pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as "Elliot Perlman, Maybe the Horse Will Talk".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe