maybe the horse will talk

When I was buying Boy Swallows Universe for my cousin’s sixteenth birthday present (retrospectively a far too gritty choice), I was chatting to the sales assistant at Avid Reader about how I wished the ending was left a little untied (more about this book to come), and she pointed out Maybe the Horse Will Talk and said I might enjoy it. After a cursory glance, I nodded politely and rushed out of the store to rescue my carpark from expiry. Like all names of places, persons and things, the book title left my brain immediately. But I DID remember that it was an Australian novel and I definitely remembered the “Bojack”-style character on the front cover – this was enough to find it again weeks later when I was hungry for homegrown authors.

I didn’t realise that this book would so closely align with a prevailing news story this week, namely the conviction of the once untouchable Harvey Weinstein. Given this relevance, and the fact that Elliot Perlman is an Australian author, I’ve chosen Maybe the Horse Will Talk as my debut review.

Maybe the Horse Will Talk is set in familiar Melbourne, and is a fictitious story about Stephen Maserov, a second-year lawyer (who knew there were so many ‘years’ of lawyership) who lives in a permanently anxious state because his workplace is essentially a cesspool of egos, unchecked patriarchal power and literal psychopaths. He left his (relatively) cushy job as an English teacher to increase his income, and is now living in joyless inertia. After neglecting his two children and home-life to maintain his position in the firm, his wife kicks him out the family home (the one he got the job to pay the mortgage of). Then the firm’s terrifying senior partner tells Maserov that he’s entirely dispensable, and more than likely to be moved on in a matter of months due to his forgettability (or lack of sucking-up).

So it’s Maserov’s desperation which causes him to undermine the senior partner and approach the firm’s largest client for secondment to quietly settle a spate of sexual assault claims – for most of the story, it seems as if Maserov’s gamble paid off.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the law terminology or corporate climate, but given Perlman’s first profession was as a barrister in Melbourne, it’s probably not too far off (though hopefully the workplace machismo is at least a little bit vintage). To Perlman’s credit, the language isn’t too hot-and-heavy for a pleb like me. It does seem entirely plausible that the predatory, sexist law firm could exist (or even be the norm), and it’s definitely authentic that sexual assault criminal cases are both complex and devastating for all parties involved. The women in this story (because it’s sexual assault acts by men towards women) are encouraged by all parties to settle, rather than be subject to the media and subsequent character-assault.

It’s a devastating storyline that stings of reality. In a recent article (post Weinstein conviction), Dr Karen O’Connell (discrimination law expert from University of Technology Sydney) was quoted as saying that “there are still a lot of stereotypes about survivors and one of the most pervasive is that women bring false accusations to bring down a powerful man.” As Perlman’s narrative echoes, it’s really not worth the psychological turmoil and career destroying effort just to alleviate a grudge against the patriarchy – I’m wondering how people can believe this? I mean honestly, does anyone (apart from Bill Cosby’s defence attorney apparently) think Weinstein is not guilty of sexual crimes and abuse of power?

Anyway… I won’t give any spoilers here, but don’t expect every dog to have his day in the short 350-odd pages of Maybe the Horse Will Talk, because apparently justice is not the norm.

Aside from the topical content, I really like Perlman’s exhaustive, descriptive sentences which read like explosive rants – the kind which have you red-faced should you say them aloud. The long-winded structure matches the self-deprecating and anxiety induced voice of the protagonist perfectly. Here’s one of my favourites:

“It was a warm and sunny autumn day and the city streets were blooming with lightly dressed women, lycra-clad superheroes cunningly disguised as bicycle couriers on amphetamines, ripped-off foreign students hopelessly lost and staring at their smartphones, avantgarde art students from the south-eastern suburbs clutching their caffeine fixes, street musicians sustained by the hope of reaching somebody, and a multitude of homeless people hopped up on cocktails of anti-dandruff shampoo, nail-polish remover and methylated spirits.”

Maserov is honourable and likeable, but my favourite character is A.A. Betga, whose roles include life-coach, private investigator, lawyer and philanderer. He is clever, obnoxious, enjoys craft beer and for some reason, dresses like he’s from the 1950s. Perlman seems to have spent a lot of effort to get me to like him – this silver-tongue who threw in his promising law career and now chairs the survival support group for those affected by the aforementioned terrifying partner. He says things like this:

“You’re like a baby caterpillar that has burst through his cocoon to become an incredibly beautiful, translucent-winged commercial lawyer. The only thing that would make your theory better is me having thought of it.”

The only female character of note is Jessica Annand, an under-utilised HR employee with a Master of Psychology – she’s wildly intelligent, unaffected, bold and beautiful and just a little bit unbelievable.

I thought the light and shade was well-balanced; the finer details of the affidavits are confronting and probably triggering for some readers, but the regular gags including the misleading origin of craft beers and the sadness of the policeman are a nice respite. You’ll get a kick out of this book if, like me, you’ve long suspected that great amounts of money equals corruption. I have read some critique on the lack of female representation, and though it would have been nice to have seen more females working in the upper echelons of the law or construction industries, my guess is that Perlman was going for realism rather than fantasy.

I am curious if this novel captures Maserov’s voice or Perlman’s, and I will definitely seek out another title to test this. Perhaps Seven Types of Ambiguity would be a good choice; shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2004, it’s probably not a bad read.

I give Maybe the Horse Will Talk 4 out of 5 Belgian-styled wheat beers (that are really brewed by Wesfarmers).

(I read this book on my Kindle, but you can buy it here)

One response to “maybe the horse will talk”

  1. ‘Maybe the Horse Will Talk’ gets its title from a charming bedtime story that Perlman’s protagonist Maserov tells his children.

    Have you heard it somewhere before? The court jester with a death sentence buys himself a year by promising to make the king’s horse talk. The king has nothing to lose by agreeing, and he might just become the envy of everyone with a very fancy horse. It’s a parable of optimism.

    In a Q&A with @penguinbooksaus, Perlman said that his father used to tell him a version of the tale, originally from 13th century “Sufi philosopher and humourist, Nasreddin.” Nasreddin’s earliest attributed manuscript is dated 1571, but since then, ‘Nasreddin thought’ has made its way into various national folk tales and even Aesop’s fables.
    Clearly I went down the rabbit hole with the talking horse… there are a few literary references (e.g. The Mote in God’s Eye, 1974) and media references (e.g. Ep.3 of Behaving Badly starring Judy Dench), and even more unattributed retellings on blogs around the globe. Sometimes the jester is a thief, sometimes the king is a sultan or a wealthy man, sometimes the horse is a donkey, and sometimes it sings instead.

    Maserov tells his children the story in earshot of his wife; he is trying to illicit both empathy and optimism from her. Perhaps he’ll lose his position with the firm if he can’t resolve the ‘impossible’ sexual-assault cases within a year, but he was definitely going to lose his job before he took the risk. Who knows – maybe he’ll come up trumps? Maybe the horse will talk?

    #maybethehorsewilltalk #elliotperlman #australianauthor #australianfiction #featurebook #bookreview #bettysbookclub #titletrivia

    Liked by 1 person

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