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Misery loves company—so the saying goes, but the opposite is true in Rebecca Hunt’s debut novel, “Mr. Chartwell.” Set in London in 1964, the plot follows two vastly different characters’ struggles with depression: Esther Hammerhans, a young widowed librarian, and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who at the age of 89 is nearing retirement after a lifetime of public service. Both receive unwanted visits from a mysterious anthropomorphic dog, which preys on their insecurities and at times knows more about them than they do about themselves. Churchill publicly acknowledged his personal battle against depression, which he called the “Black Dog;” Hunt draws her influence from this description, imagining the “Black Dog” as a literal presence in the lives of those suffering from depression.
Yet all is not gloom and doom in this novel centered around one of the darkest human emotions. Instead of crafting descriptions of depression laden with misery, Hunt enlivens the struggles of Esther and Churchill against the Black Dog with witty banter. The dog, who introduces himself to Esther as “Mr. Chartwell” but soon comes to be known as Black Pat, especially enjoys antagonizing Esther with behavior she finds repulsive and annoying.
After littering her yard with bird carcasses he intends to cook on a homemade barbeque grill, Esther asks Black Pat how many birds he killed. “Dum-de-dum,” he answers. “Don’t worry, none you knew personally.”’
Hunt’s prose also shines in her evocative descriptions of everyday emotions and occurrences. “The empty house closed around her like a shroud,” Hunt writes, drawing the reader further into the entrapment Esther experiences every day in her lonely solitude. The first pangs of early romance become, under Hunt’s steady guidance, a “heart [ringing] like a tuning fork.”
The author has a perfect, eloquent way of putting other inane experiences to words. On the first night Black Pat sleeps at Esther’s house, “Esther felt the embarrassment of trying to sleep in the company of acquaintances, that squeak of adult humiliation at talking in pyjamas and then very consciously not talking and lying there in the blackness.”
Hunt aims to permeate the entire book with an air of mystery, and introduces tantalizing questions from the nature of Esther’s husband Michael’s death to the very meaning of Black Pat. However, the solutions to these questions are more obvious than Hunt seems to think they are. Quite early in the novel, Black Pat clearly insinuates that he is the embodiment of depression. When Esther pries into the nature of his employment, he readily explains: “My services consist of periods of time when I visit specific people, people who experience a specific darkness. Churchill is a regular ... He names his depression the Black Dog.” Apparently, Hunt thought this allusion was veiled enough that the reader would not associate Black Pat with the actual experience of depression; even without this quote, however, it is clear from Esther’s personality that she is depressed. So when Esther’s later revelation about Black Pat’s true nature comes to light, her description—“It was the crescendo of a piano heaved from the top of a staircase. The piano hit the floor and detonated with all chords,” seems a slightly overblown given the circumstances of her—and the reader’s—discovery.
However, this slight fault is for the most part inconsequential, and does not interfere with Hunt’s otherwise lively and engaging style. She deftly weaves Black Pat’s overwhelming, constant presence into the novel without sacrificing other plot developments and supporting characters. It is her characterization of Black Pat, with all his nuanced shifts in emotion, which prove her chops as a writer. Black Pat is simultaneously pitiable and vile, charming and insidious. Hunt’s descriptions powerfully encapsulate his cunning character. Having begged Esther to be allowed to sleep in her room, he dejectedly gives up—but only momentarily. “‘But I’m not allowed in,’ he said sadly, so very sorry for himself. ‘You won’t let me in,’ he said again, such a sad dog. There was a subtle transformation, oblongs of streetlight moving across his eyes. He said ... in an inaudible slip of breath, ‘Yet.’”
It is this casual creepiness in Black Pat’s character that results in the novel’s most interesting descriptions. Trying to get Esther to confide in him, his voice is “soft and ulcerous;” talking about the inescapability of depression, he predicts that “back you’ll come because I’ll bring you back.” Alone, the thoughts of Esther and Churchill can be bland and tedious; forced to interact with Black Pat, their personalities come alive in dynamic ways as they spar, verbally and mentally, with the embodiment of their struggles.
“I’m only the grease in a crease,” Black Pat says, “a kink in the link.” Despite this light-hearted take on depression, the novel, by its end, is surprisingly serious about the implications of both depression and recovery. Hunt has crafted an elegant tale that brings depression—so often taboo and hidden—into a personal light by personifying it. Depression, Hunt imparts, is not the be-all, end-all of existence. Churchill led an entire country while struggling with his personal demons. “It’s either my way or the hard way,” Black Pat starts off, in what seems to be one of his characteristic ditties. “But in truth, in time,” he finally admits, “my way is the hardest way imaginable.” In this darkly optimistic first work, Rebecca Hunt presents an intimate and original take on the private destruction of depression.
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