MR. CHARTWELL by Rebecca Hunt

Book Quote:

“I understand that we share a wicked union, and I know the goblin bell which summons you from the tomb in my heart. And I will honour my principles, labouring against the shadow you herald. I don’t blench from this burden but…it’s so demanding, it leaves me so very tired.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman (FEB 09, 2011)

To paraphrase Elvis Presley, depression “ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” In an audacious conceit, Ms. Hunt imagines the depression that hounded Winston Churchill his entire life as exactly that – “unmistakably a dog, a mammoth muscular dog about six foot seven high” whose short black fur is “dense and water-resistant, his broad face split by a vulgar mouth.”

This mesmerizing dog’s day job is the consistent persecution of Winston Churchill, who, at 89 years old, is on the cusp of retiring from his position as prime minister. In real life, Churchill often referred to his depression as “that black dog.” However, in a bold move, Mr. Churchill is really relegated to the role of bit player in this very original book.

The real protagonist is Esther Hammerhans, a young widow, a House of Commons library clerk, who is approaching the anniversary of her husband’s death. When we meet her, she has decided to rent out her guest room, and the giant Labrador – aka “Black Pat” – comes to look it over. Her first instinct is to hide but hide where? “There was nothing in the hallway to dive behind, it was a wasteland.”

After wrestling with herself, Esther decides to let Black Pat – or metaphorical depression – stay, at least on a trial basis. She finds him to be strangely seductive: he makes bad jokes, builds a barbecue in her garden where he cooks coots and old shoes, misbehaves in dog-like manner, and tries to inveigle himself more thoroughly into her life.

It will fall to Churchill – who is intimately familiar with Black Pat and wonders aloud to him “whether you were there, waiting to stake your flag from the moment my soul entered the earth” to minister to Esther and give her guidance to cope. Churchill says, “…it will struggle on its knees to serve, fighting out the inches in dust and desert. But do never forget where it is migrating to, for it will bear you there. It is a migration into the dust.” He has learned through trial and error that “we are still captains of our souls,” despite the fight it takes to remain there.

There are strengths and weaknesses in this audacious novel. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 20.9 percent of American adults alone – or about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population who are 18 and older – suffer from a mood disorder. The novel speaks charmingly and originally about how depression is perceived by one who is coping with it. For the imaginative personification of depression alone, this is a book worth reading.

However, it is precisely this unconventionality that sometimes works at odds with itself. Black Pat too often appears immensely loveable, not the fearsome force that cause too many adults to suffer or even take their own lives. More problematically, Ms. Hunt seems to wrestle with whether to keep using Black Pat as a metaphor or to make him a fully-realized being who can think, feel, and destroy.

Ultimately, the book begins to read like a parable. Anyone in Esther’s place would be depressed; her depression is not the organic kind that Churchill appears to suffer from. The reader never quite feels the menace. At the end of the day, the characters (with the exception of Black Pat) come across as lacking verve and complexity.

This is, after all, a debut book, and Rebecca Hunt amply signifies that she has the talent and rich imagination to become a force to be reckoned with. Her ability to take on the “bête noir” of Winston Churchill is audacious and bold. Would that she had gone just a little further.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: The Dial Press (February 8, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Penguin interview with Rebecca Hunt
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More fiction that finds a way to convey depression:

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett


February 9, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, Unique Narrative

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.