Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Caroline by Cornelius Medvei

Lest you get completely the wrong impression about Mel, who gave me Dewey (and thanks for your lovely comments on that!) and High School Musical: The Book of the Film, I thought I'd better review a really good novel that she lent me recently.  It's become sort of a stereotype that when Mel gives or lends me books, it takes me years to read them.  Well, last Wednesday she lent me Caroline: A Mystery by Cornelius Medvei (can this be his real name?), and I started it at about 8.30pm while waiting for my train home - and by the end of the night, I'd finished it.

Mel knew I would love it for a couple of reasons - it plays with the fantastic, and it involves a donkey.  Donkeys are my second favourite animal, after cats (obviously) and I was definitely prepared to enjoy a novel where donkey takes central focus.

It actually kicks off with one of those layered narratives beloved of Victorian writers and earlier - the sort of thing we see in Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights etc., of someone telling someone telling someone, all remembering things perfectly, etc.  So Mr. Shaw's son is relating the story to someone who may or may not have a name.  Sorry, can't remember.  I'm not entirely sure why Medvei did this, unless it's to put all sorts of question marks about reliability and integrity into the narrative.  (It's also a nice excuse to include photographs and scraps, apparently left behind by Mr. Shaw.)  Let's skip past it onto the story proper.

Mr. Shaw is on holiday with his wife and child, from his job as an insurance broker, when they come across Caroline in a field.  They know she's called Caroline, because it's painted on her stable.  Mr. Shaw's son gives this account of the meeting...
They faced each other across the sagging gate.  He saw a rusty grey, barrel-chested donkey, with pretty ears nine inches long (one cocked, the other drooping to the left), head on one side, flicking her tail to keep the flies away.  I noticed her shaggy coat and the pale whiskers on her upper lip, and wondered how old she might be.  I wasn't sure how you told a donkey's age; something to do with their teeth, I thought, but she kept her mouth firmly shut as she champed on a mouthful of grass in a manner that suggested intense concentration mingled with dumb insolence, like a bored teenager with a plug of bubblegum.

And she, fixing my father my her great, dark, limpid eyes - "eyes a man could drown in", as he later described them - took in the hair thinning at the temples, his nose reddened with sunburn, his stomach bulging slightly over the waistband of his shorts (like all his colleagues, my father always wore shorts on holiday, regardless of the weather; shorts were not allowed in the office).

I suppose this was the moment the whole strange affair began; the moment, so well documented in classical poetry and TV soaps and sugary ballads, when two strangers come face to face; the heart thumps, an overpowering force shakes them, like the wind in the birch trees above the stable - in short, they begin to fall for each other.
One interesting result of Medvei giving the focalisation to Mr. Shaw's son is that we never really know what Mr. Shaw is thinking, or quite what level of affection he feels for Caroline.  His son describes it as a love affair (er, non-physical of course.  It's not that kind of book) but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it isn't - that Mr. Shaw simply thinks Caroline is incredible.

And it's hard not to agree.  Mr. Shaw manages to persuade Caroline's owner - and his own wife - that taking Caroline home with him is a good idea.  Once established in the backyard of their terraced city house, Caroline becomes something of a nuisance to the neighbours with her eeee-orrrring.  (We used to live a few metres away from a field of donkeys (known as the 'donkey field', demonstrating an early flair for linguistic manipulation) and, believe me, some donkeys make their presence known.  There was one called Charlie Brown who was LOUD.)  Anyway - Mr. Shaw's solution to this predicament is somewhat unorthodox.  He decides to take Caroline to his office.

After initial protests, Caroline becomes an integral part of office life.  Eventually, even though Mr. Shaw is only a few months away from retirement, she even takes his place.  It isn't clear whether the office staff are having a joke at Mr. Shaw's expense, or whether Caroline somehow does perform adeptly at the job... but these ambiguities aren't practicable once Caroline begins to play chess...

This is where the potential element of the fantastic comes into play.  It's possible that delusion is at work, but it seems more likely (within the context of the story) that Caroline can play chess and look after financial clients.  She never speaks or writes, or anything like that - Medvei is much cleverer, by giving her a curious form of communication which centres around the chessboard.

Caroline: A Mystery has the feel of a fable, but without any moral or message.  But with, so the subtitle proclaims, a mystery.  What is it?  Her unusual abilities, or his unusual affections?  Or simply the suddenness of it all, without any connection to Mr. Shaw's previous life?

As I said before, I read this in a few hours.  It's short (around 150pp) and definitely a page-turner - but with lingering thoughtfulness, rather than the rush-through-discard-immediately feel of some fast-paced books.  Medvei isn't particularly a prose stylist - there is no bad writing though, it's just secondary to the plot and the characters - but he certainly knows how to craft a novel so that the reader rushes through, loving every moment, curious as to what the next page will hold.

I know it's still early to mention the C-word, but I think this would make a lovely Christmas gift for the animal lover in your life.  If that person happens to be you, then... what are you gonna do??

Others who got Stuck into it:

"This is a lovely little book!" - Jackie, Farm Lane Books

"a small but finely wrought – and very enjoyable – read." - David, Follow The Thread

"Sheer delight from start to finish, amusing, sad and wonderfully written, with great economy of style." - Elaine, Random Jottings


  1. If you love donkeys, you HAVE to read May Sarton's Joanna & Ulysses.

    1. Oh yes, I do remember that being on my radar!

  2. I knew you'd love this one! I still have lovely images of the donkey in the office. I so wish this story was true!!

    1. Thanks for nudging it in my direction, Jackie!


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