Elliot Perlman's new novel, Maybe the Horse Will Talk has a jovial tone that clashes with the serious subject matter

Author Elliot Perlman. Picture: Supplied

Author Elliot Perlman. Picture: Supplied

The intriguingly titled Maybe the Horse Will Talk is set firmly within the legal and business world of Melbourne. It is still comparatively rare to have novels that have workplaces as their central locale (police procedurals aside) and Perlman is to be commended for dealing with a world where so many of us spend at least one-third of our waking hours.

One-third or many, many more hours, as the novel focuses on junior commercial lawyers working impossibly hard, under constant threat of dismissal. The novel opens with the memorable line, "I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate". The speaker (or thinker) is Stephen Maserov, and it is his immersion in the ruthless corporate world that the novel follows over a period of a few months.

At the centre of the work is the question of sexual harassment in the workplace and the difficulty women face in having perpetrators brought to account. The appalling behaviour of a man who is a serial offender has caused several employees to move on from their jobs at a construction firm, and legal proceedings may or may not proceed against him.

While the seriousness of the conduct is outlined, the overall jovial tone of the book is rather grating in light of this central concern. Humour is present in many forms, from the absurd name of the legal company where Maserov works, 'Freely Savage Carter Blanche', to witty conversation, to social observation, particularly of different classes and suburbs, but also of literature itself. For example, the description of a "novel about a small boat that cruised the canals of Paris in search of bookshops only to dock, somehow, in Tuscany. It managed to have 'bookshop', 'Paris', 'Tuscany' and 'love' in the title". Here the humour is not directly related to the sexual harassment case, which is refreshing. We can even picture the misty cover of that non-existent book from these lines - very different from the BoJack Horseman-like cover of Perlman's novel.

The social observation in Maybe the Horse Will Talk is not fully matched by believable familial or love scenes. The central character, attempting to navigate his way in the corporate world, is not particularly likeable, yet is portrayed as inexplicably attractive to some women.

As to the origin of that wonderful title, readers will have to discover that for themselves, and find out if the horse does in fact talk by novel's end. Unfortunately, though, the emphasis on comedy clashes with the subject matter, making for a somewhat disappointing experience along the way.

  • Penelope Cottier is a poet known as PS Cottier, who has a law degree in a cupboard somewhere.
  • Maybe the Horse Will Talk, by Elliot Perlman. Penguin. $32.99.
This story Clash of humour with subject matter falls flat first appeared on The Canberra Times.