This tale’s pinned on a donkey …

Caroline: A Mystery by Cornelius Medvei

This short novel is a weird and wonderful thing, slightly surreal in parts, but utterly captivating.

It is the story of Mr Shaw, who takes his family on their annual vacation where he tries to unwind from his day job in insurance, but is fretting internally (as is his wife), over his impending retirement. One day, they’re all out for a walk, and in a field up the road, Shaw’s son spots an animal…

‘It’s a donkey,’ my father said.
As if to confirm this statement of the obvious, the donkey stepped out of the carriage doorway and trotted up to us, and it was then we saw that she was a female. She tossed her head and snorted, and stopped in front of my father.
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. …
… And she, fixing my father with 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 when 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… An odd way, perhaps, to describe the first meeting, in a muddy field, of a middle-aged insurance broker and a donkey. But this was how it happened.

Instantly smitten, Shaw’s father buys the donkey who is called Caroline. He sends his family home in the car and takes two weeks to walk Caroline back home to live in their front garden. Soon he’s spending every spare minute with the donkey.

When the neighbours complain about her braying when he’s at work, the solution is simple – he takes her to work with him. Then one day his son discovers his father playing chess with the donkey in her shed … and this is when the tale takes a more surreal aspect, and here I’ll stop to save spoiling things, save to say that there is plenty more to come.

The narrative is interspersed with extracts from Mr Shaw’s papers, his researches into donkeys, his opnions on R.L.Stevenson’s classic travelogue Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, together with rather amateurish and grainy photos.  They all add to the charm of this strange friendship.

When you think of humans with animal best friends, at one extreme there are the very real close relationships between shepherds and their dogs, (and yes, even the X-Factor winners Ashleigh & Pudsey). At the other end of the scale is James Stewart and his invisible six foot rabbit friend Harvey (from the 1950 film, and 1944 play by Mary Chase).  You are never quite sure how real Harvey is, whether he’s truly imaginary, or a fairy spirit, whereas Caroline is quite clearly a real donkey with winning eyes and a way of getting people to do what she wants – but how real is her chess-playing prowess?

Whatever her skills, the relationship between the donkey and Mr Shaw is lovely, platonic, but also obsessive on his part. He, however, had been wondering how to handle his retirement, and she is both the way to ease him into it, and able to give him a new lease of life at the same time.

Full of humour, yet equally touching, this is a gentle but quirky novel that was a pleasure to read. (9/10)

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I received my copy courtesy of Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Caroline: A Mystery by Cornelius Medvei – Vintage pbk, pub July 2012, 160 pages.
Harvey [DVD] starring James Stewart (1950)
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and the Amateur Emigrant (Penguin Classics) by Robert Louis Stevenson

5 thoughts on “This tale’s pinned on a donkey …

  1. Alex says:

    I was trying to remember why I knew Medvei’s name and a quick whisk round the internet reminded me that he wrote a book some years ago, Mr Thundermug, that split the reading community right down the middle. Some people were ecstatic about it and others just couldn’t see the point. I have to say that I was amongst the latter. But, I am always willing to give an author a second try, so if this comes into the library I’ll see what I think.

    • gaskella says:

      Alex, I hadn’t heard of Mr Thundermug – having a quick flick over to it, I think I’d be in the camp who enjoyed it …

  2. farmlanebooks says:

    I enjoyed this book too. I loved the way things got increasingly bizarre as the book progressed. Someone mentioned Thundermug at the time I read it – I’d forgotten all about it so will have to track it down.

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