Contemporary Novellas: Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings #NovNov #AusReadingMonth

‘Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/ That’s how it goes, everybody knows’

Leonard Cohen

Books about business and Wall Street in particular tend to be big, epic affairs in the vein of The Bonfire of the Vanities and most concern the world of men. Australian author Kate Jennings has drawn from her own life experiences and upended these expectations with this short, lyrical novella featuring a woman working at the heart of the financial system.

Moral Hazard’s middle-aged heroine, Cath, works as a speechwriter for a Wall Street investment bank that isn’t one of the big firms, but is big enough. Cath’s job is to make the abstruse language of global business communications digestible, a job made harder by the fact that she doesn’t understand it herself. A self-confessed ‘1960s leftie’ who is ostensibly opposed to greed and privilege, finance is not her background. However Cath doesn’t have the luxury of choosing a job in the arts as she would like because her beloved husband Bailey, 25 years her senior, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Cath must do what pays in order to cover the costs for his specialist care.

When she begins the job, she is appalled at the behaviour of her company and Wall Street as a whole and she has difficulty keeping her feelings in check.

I had gained a whole different view of New York’s skyscrapers. I looked at them and didn’t see architecture. I saw infestations of middle managers, tortuous chains of command, stupor-inducing meetings, ever-widening gyres of e-mail. I saw people scratching up dust like chickens and calling it work. I saw the devil whooping it up.

But needs must, and as Cath strikes up a friendship with a smoking buddy called Mike, a risk manager and avowed Marxist, and Horace, a manager with a more unusual outlook, she begins to learn more about the industry and succumbs somewhat to the seduction of the trading floor – ‘the tangible heart of a place that dealt in intangibles.’

As Cath becomes more reluctantly involved in her work, Bailey’s condition deteriorates and Jennings writes with a clear-eyed honest about the ugly decline from living at home to hospitalisation and finally to care home. She eschews sentimentality and as her financial institution skirts with imminent collapse, so too does the life that she and Bailey have built together.  Cath must make a decision on two fronts – should she assist Bailey to end his life and should she tell her superiors that Mike has predicted an imminent collapse?

A moral hazard is an idea that a party protected from risk in some way will act differently than if they didn’t have that protection. While this is clearly evident in the behaviour of Cath’s employers, it also works as a metaphor for Bailey’s illness and the decisions Cath has to make in relation to it. When faced with crisis is it better to leave things to fate or step in to bring a resolution, no matter how painful?

The book is written in short chapters which move from Cath’s work life to her personal life and the emotional pull on Cath is vividly depicted. Some of the chapters involving Bailey’s illness and, more importantly, his awareness of his illness, are heart-breaking and must surely have been inspired by Jennings husband Bob Cato, who died from the complications of Alzheimer’s in 1999. Sometimes the genuine pathos of these passages sits a bit uneasily aside the sarcastic depiction of the financial sector, but overall, Moral Hazard is a moving and honest book about the challenge of chronic illness, financial stability and our personal moral compass.

Actually I did learn something. The dailiness of life – that’s what gets you through hard times. Putting on your pantyhose, eating breakfast, catching the subway. That’s what stops your heart from breaking.

I read Moral Hazard for Aus Reading Month hosted by Brona at Brona’s Books and you can read two other great reviews from Kim at Reading Matters and Sue at Whispering Gums.

Novellas in November

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

22 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I remember being captivated by this when I read it years ago in proof way before the financial crash when finance featured rarely in fiction. A great start to Novella November, Cathy, and I already have the book!


  2. Great review, Cathy. Thanks for linking back to mine. I highly recommend her other novella, Snake, which is about a married couple eking out a living on a remote farm. It’s very different to this one in terms of subject matter, but the prose is still full of poetry and insights. Sadly, Kate Jennings died earlier this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That does sound an interesting take on figures on the edge of the financial industry who might see it differently from the mainstream. Also, kudos for covering two challenges in one go!


  4. This does sound very good, although I am sure I would find it quite emotional. I will see if I can find a copy and plan to read it next year.


  5. I have one of Jennings books somewhere on my pile (pretty sure it’s this one) that I’ve been meaning to dig out ever since we heard the news of her death earlier in the year. Sadly my book does not have the amazing cover design that yours does. Love the figurines.


  6. Thanks for the link, Cathy, and so sorry it’s taken a while for me to come here and comment. Kate Jennings is (was, as she died not too long ago) such a beautiful writer. I’d love my reading group to do this, as I’d happily read it again. I have just added my link to your novellas page, for a post on another Jennings novella.

    BTW I love your Leonard Cohen quote to open this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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