Caroline: A Mystery by Cornelius Medvei
|Caroline: A Mystery by Cornelius Medvei|
|Genre: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A most non-asinine look at the absurdities of love. A little charmer, despite its flaws.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 160||Date: January 2011|
|Publisher: Harvill Secker|
Meet Mr Shaw. He's an insurance worker who takes his wife and son off on their annual vacation one year, and finds himself indulging in a surprisingly platonic holiday romance. The subject of his infatuation, Caroline, has eyes, ears, hair and more that easily combine with Mr Shaw's fondness for classical Persian love poetry. At the end of the holiday he lets his wife and son depart while he takes a further week off to walk all the way home with Caroline. Who is, as it happens, a donkey.
This is a big novel, disguised as a small book, about love. Even with the author's arch humour there is nothing crude suggested in the relationship between Mr Shaw and Caroline - and the mystery part somewhat comes from thinking of the relationship from the other way around - the beast's with the human. Instead there is metaphor and a touch of fable in the way she expands his life. With the donkey not satisfied at home in a stable he takes her to work - where it seems she fits in quite well with enough capabilities to cover his workload. And don't get me started on the platonic but charming downtime they have playing chess together.
In the meantime Mrs Shaw gets her own business going, and their son, more or less the narrator, does his homework, and is both admiring and jealous of his father's new companion, hobby and lifestyle. It's a very weird household as you might imagine for this unnamed city (which, from the author's biography and photos would seem to be Shanghai, although is never named).
Bear in mind my giving this book four stars then when I talk of some fairly serious flaws. I found the son as narrator a bland way in to the story, and nowhere near as successfully rounded as his parents and Caroline in character. The framing device suggested to me Medvei was at a small loss as to how to quite finish his book. Also the cuttings, jumps in format and typography are an eye-catching eccentricity but did not seem wholly necessary, or completely in keeping.
Especially, that is, when the tale has more than enough charm, warmth and quirkiness of its own. It's not played for laughs, although there are several to be had - and I will negate my own comments by acknowledging the joke in the footnote in the essay in the novel about dog food. Instead it's done with all sincerity, and is all the better for it. You will encounter comedy and sadness in equal measure, and come to accept a donkey playing chess, and working with her human best friend - and his feelings for her throughout.
To repeat, it's a short book but not a small one, and gives us an honest and realistic look at the idiotically fictional essence of this thing called love, in ways that will last with the reader for longer than many bulkier books could hope to.
I must thank the publishers for my copy.
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