Jul/Aug 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

Maybe the Horse Will Talk

Review by Ann Skea

Maybe the Horse Will Talk.
Elliot Perlman.
Vintage, Penguin Random House. 2020. 352 pp.
ISBN 978 0 14378 149 3.

Stephen Maserov has problems. He is a 32-year-old, second-year lawyer at the prestigious Melbourne law firm Freely Savage Carter Blanche, where he lives "in a collapsible workstation in the interstices of other people's promising careers." And he has just learned second-year lawyers will shortly be "culled."

Stephen "absolutely" hates his job, but he needs it in order to pay his mortgage and support his wife and two small sons. Becoming a lawyer in the first place had been a decision made for economic reasons. He and his wife, Eleanor, could no longer survive on their teaching salaries, so they had decided Eleanor would support Stephen through law school. That, and the eventual demands of corporate life, have left their marriage "terminally ill." Describing herself as "a corporate widow in all but liberty, one who had contracted a sexually transmitted debt," Eleanor suggested a trial separation, commenting bitterly that "If you keep a clean shirt in your office you won't even notice."

Stephen still hopes for a reconciliation and is afraid his sons will forget him, so he visits the marital home each night to help put the children to bed. On the night Stephen learns his job is at risk—news which has prompted him to make a seemingly foolhardy (and desperate) promise to the CEO of another company—he tells five-year-old Beanie a fairy story. "In a far-off land," he tells him, a king has just told his jester that he no longer finds him amusing. Knowing that this means he will lose his head, and desperately trying to think of a way to prevent this, the jester tells the king that he knows an astonishing magic trick which no other jester or magician is able to do:

"What is the trick?" the king asked, intrigued.

"Under the right circumstances, I can make your horse talk... It's an astonishing sight. But I need your very best horse, not just any horse but your best, and I'll need him for a whole year if I'm going to get it right. It's not easy, you know. Horses are very shy animals. They're naturally resistant to talking..."

The king was very taken with the prospect of his best horse being trained to talk and he happily agreed to the jester's suggestion.

Like the jester, Stephen has promised something seemingly impossible. After being co-opted by Human Resources (according to company policy) to be a silent observer at a meeting between his boss, Mike Hamilton, the senior equity partner of Freely Savage Carter Blanche, and Malcolm Torrent, the CEO of their biggest customer, Torrent Industries, Stephen unexpectedly found himself alone in a lift with Malcolm Torrent. In an uncharacteristically bold moment, he spoke to Torrent and promised that, given a year, he would make the currently pending legal allegations of sexual harassment by Torrent Industries executives go away.

All he needs, Stephen told an intrigued Malcolm Torrent, is for Torrent to ask Mike Hamilton to direct Stephen to work exclusively on the sexual harassment matter for 12 months. Stephen has no idea how he will keep his promise, but he hopes this will keep him in work for 12 months and will be more interesting than the routine, seemingly useless work on which he is currently required to spend over-long hours. Stephen's quick mind, initiative, integrity, and boldness impress Malcolm Torrent, so the agreement is made.

Not everything goes to plan. Mike Hamilton is a cold-hearted achiever whose equity partners hate him, and for whom every minute is recorded on his timesheet, where "each hour is divided into ten billable units of six-minutes." He resents Stephen's interference and sets out to make Stephen's life as difficult as possible by making him responsible for pointless time-consuming staff survey tasks, which Stephen manages to turn to his own advantage. But Stephen is also in a moral dilemma. He reads the depositions made by the sexual harassment claimants and the details horrify and disgust him, so to make the claims go away seems morally wrong. Yet he needs the job to support his family. He is lucky the lawyer acting on behalf of the claimants, when he eventually manages to track him down, has some personal motive for wanting revenge on Mike Hamilton, so is keen to work with him, rather than against him as would be expected.

This lawyer, A.A. Betga, is smart and devious and at times does things absolutely horrifying to Stephen. However, together with the help of Jessica, a quick-witted young woman working in the Human Resource department of Torrent Industries, they manage not only to negotiate the many pitfalls they encounter but also to achieve some retributive goals for the victims of the assaults and for their own campaigns against Mike Hamilton.

Jessica, as Stephen eventually learns, has a Masters degree in psychology but took the Torrens Human Resources job because she needed "to eat and pay rent."

"I'll be honest," she tells Stephen, "I was fooled by the opulent offices and the way the money automatically appeared in my bank account every two weeks. But the disappointment began in earnest when I found I was spending significant parts of my day ensuring there was sufficient alfalfa on each side of the sandwich platters I was instructed to order and sometimes deliver for in-house seminars. This was not what I had aspired to."

Jessica, being an attractive Indian woman, also has problems trying to evade the increasingly worrying sexual advances of the male executive for whom she does most of her work. Initially, Stephen, who needs her help to establish his Torrent e-mail account and to find Betga, tells her nothing about what he is investigating. When he does confess, she is keen to help the victims and at the same time to stop the culture at Torrent Industries which allows perpetrators to get away with such actions. Jessica and Stephen become close, and she is adept at using her knowledge of psychology to solve her own problem with her boss, and also to help Stephen and Betga to a satisfactory conclusion to their own efforts. Based on genuine psychological research, Jessica manages to convince her boss that true leaders adopt certain behavior (carefully chosen by her in this case) to prove their leadership qualities. This exposes her boss as ridiculously, and vulnerably, self-opinionated, but also leads eventually to his downfall.

Maybe The Horse Will Talk is full of unexpected plot-twists and tricky situations. Elliot Perlman has a wonderfully cynical and funny way of seeing the corporate world, and he is expert at crafting neat sentences that expose recognizable truths about said world, making you laugh at the same time. He takes shots at many things associated with the law, but he is a lawyer, so there is a solid base to his judgments. He lets Stephen use valid legal arguments to convince Malcolm Torrent to do whatever he suggests, and he clearly demonstrates the ways in which women undergo sexual harassment in the workplace, have difficulty having their claims taken seriously if they report this, and how employers manage to bury such claims or, if they come to court, employ lawyers who almost invariably manage to discredit the women. Serious issues underlie the plot of this novel but never swamp the excitement and the humor. Perlman's characters have wry views on such things as marriage, child-rearing, Human Resources, book clubs, and even professional journals. Asked about the Law Institute Journal,Stephen comments:

It's frequently used as professionally sanctioned camouflage to cover whatever the given Second Year is really reading. Additionally it can be brought out when waiting for someone in a bar or café to signal to everyone else that the person occupying the table or seated at the bar is a lawyer. And, finally, the Second Years do like getting mail personally addressed to them. It's an uncommon happening in the work setting. They show it to their parents.

Often this book is very funny as well as being absorbing and fast-paced. Perlman is master of dialogue and of smart quips. My favorite is Malcolm Torrent's command to his secretary after Stephen has talked him into doing something particularly outrageous: "Show Maserov to the door," says Torrent, "before I gift him one of my grandchildren."

Not surprising, Paramount Studios in America has optioned Maybe The Horse Will Talk for adaptation as a television series.


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