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by Cornelius Medvei

4*

The gently surreal story of a man and his obsessive passion for his best friend and one true love, Caroline, a chess-playing donkey.

Mr Shaw lives a dreary, tiresome existence of office, supper and bed that is familiar to most of us. He is approaching retirement; his wife is dreading having him at home all day. Then, on a family holiday, Mr Shaw meets Caroline, a donkey so apparently remarkable he decides to buy her, taking an extra week off work to walk her home, alone; growing a beard, living rough. He builds Caroline a stable in the back yard and spends every evening with her. One evening he takes his chessboard to the stable and discovers that Caroline is even more remarkable than he thought.

Written throughout as a true account, with just a dash of doubt sprinkled over the end – was Caroline a true prodigy, a chess genius who, for a while, took over Mr Shaw’s office job and did it so well that everyone apparently forgot that Shaw was ever there at all? Or was Shaw’s father perhaps just having a breakdown? This is magical realism gently told, in a voice that’s not quite English. There’s the whiff of middle Europe about this story that adds strongly to the sense of reading a folktale. Where is it set? We are never told, certainly not in the UK. Some Persian Poetry from Shaw’s diary gives a possible clue to the inspiration for this quirky little novel, which seemed to me to be a fable about the oddness of love and the true value of friends and family.

It’s very short and a quick read. The story unfolds quietly, there are no whistles or bells, none are needed. The story is quietly calming, soothing,  like a warm bath or a cup of hot tea; like being home, on a weekday, reading a good book on a dark, rainy day. It’s not an exciting experience, there’s nothing here to upset or disturb, it’s just pleasantly calming, relaxing and deeply enjoyable.

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