Not often that I give posts Tori Amos song titles, but it was the first thing that popped into my head when I put Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt in front of me. I was lucky enough to meet Rebecca Hunt a couple of weeks ago at a Penguin bloggers/authors event. For a lovely write-up of the day, check out Sakura’s post or Annabel’s or David’s or Hayley’s. All of which makes me think perhaps I should have written something about it myself. Oops. I will say that, for someone who wrote a book about depression, Rebecca was hilarious. I hope the wine I’d drunk on an empty stomach didn’t make me think *I* was too hilarious. Onto Mr. Chartwell…
The man in question is not, in fact, a man – but a dog. Winston Churchill famously referred to his depression as his ‘black dog’ – Hunt imagines what it would be like if Churchill had not been speaking metaphorically; what if there really was a black dog, visible only to those he afflicts? Mr. Chartwell (also known as Black Pat, although neither is his actual name – which is never revealed) is that dog.
It’s 1964 and Churchill is 89 years old, and about to retire. Not far away, in Battersea, House of Commons librarian Esther Hammerhans has advertised for a lodger to live with her, and is awaiting his arrival. It won’t surprise you to learn that the lodger in question turns out to be… Mr. Chartwell. He is incredibly tall (and stands upright), he speaks English perfectly, and more or less his only canine vice is a propensity to eat anything and everything, usually in a peculiarly disgusting, slobbery manner. Reluctantly, Esther lets him stay.
This might all sound a bit fey. The anthropomorphism of animals is usually rather whimsical, or at least diverting, but in Mr. Chartwell it’s really something that we should come to terms with as quickly as possible, and then carry on. And there is certainly nothing fey about Mr. Chartwell. He is, if anything, menacing – but not aggressive or threatening, rather he is persistent. Whenever Churchill tells him to leave, it is acknowledged between them that Mr. Chartwell leaving is never really a possibility. He is an unwelcome companion, but a companion nevertheless.
Esther thought about Michael in here with this dog, trapped with him, already trapped when they first met. “And you’re going to trap me too.” She recalled the day he moved in, her gullibility. “This is an ambush.”
“No, it’s an affinity. I didn’t initiate it.” From behind the desk Black Pat said, “The magnet that keeps me here is the magnet which brought me here. We are twinned by the same orbit and I’m all yours, Esther, I’m all yours.” He said hopefully, “Don’t you like me even slightly?”Michael, by the way, is Esther’s late husband. His story slowly unwinds through the novel, as pieces are filled in, so I shan’t spoil it for you here.
Such are the bare bones of the narrative, and it is a simple story really – with an innovative central idea which permits simplicity. Indeed, to overcomplicate the novel would have been a big mistake. As it was, I could have done with less of Esther’s colleague Beth and Beth’s husband Big Oliver. They were something of a distraction.
What Hunt has done brilliantly, and originally, is capture the claustrophobia of depression. The idea of a hot, heavy, relentless dog lying across one’s body might not be medically accurate, but it certainly conjures up an idea of what living with depression might be like. And yet, Mr. Chartwell is not a distressing novel. There is a lot of humour flowing through it, especially from Mr. Chartwell himself – who is not a wholly repugnant character by any means. Relentless, yes, but also somehow seductive. Not in a romantic way, of course, but through his dogged (no pun intended) charisma.
I don’t know anything about Churchill, really, beyond what everyone grows up knowing. I don’t know whether or not his character and his dialogue are written convincingly – other people will be able to say, perhaps. I’m not sure it really matters. Churchill is useful as the originator of the ‘black dog’ expression, but his character could have been anyone who experienced both success and depression. Even without the ‘hook’ of Churchill, Hunt has written a strikingly original debut novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing what could possibly come next. And Rebecca, if you’re reading, I still want the chandelier we were arguing over.
Never let it be said, gentle readers, that I do not think of you. There was a free-for-all at Penguin’s table of free books, but (a) I had already asked lovely Lija for a copy of Mr. Chartwell, and (b) there seemed to be lots of spare copies – so I grabbed one to offer up as a giveaway copy. So, as a reward for reading this far, simply pop your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy (open worldwide) – actually, let’s make it a little bit more exciting. I want to know the name (and species) of your first pet – if you’ve never had one, then what would you call one. Get commenting…