What could Winston Churchill have in common with a young librarian named Esther Hammerhans? The answer is Mr Chartwell – an over-sized and over-imposing black dog.
Known informally as Black Pat, the dog has insidiously wormed his way into becoming a daily part of Winston Churchill’s life and is threatening to become a long-term tenant of Esther’s. Mr Chartwell is an allegory for depression and has been a constant presence in Churchill’s life, but Esther is new to his advances or so she believes.
I struggle to think of many other books that convey what is a very serious message with so much originality and seemingly so effortlessly. By characterising depression in the form of Mr Chartwell, Hunt is able to convey how his presence affects Esther and Churchill in a vivid and also a witty way. The tone of the book is deceptively light-hearted. There are many amusing exchanges between Esther and the insistent Mr Chartwell:
Black Pat was holding the wooden spoon, re-wrapped with the tea towel. Rubbing his teeth with it, he worked against the enamel, pushing it around the gullies of his mouth….
… ‘That’s my tea towel, I hope you know’… ‘And that’s my spoon.’ Moodily she said. ‘I cook with that spoon.’
He removed it. ‘Not now it’s my toothbrush you don’t’.
So, while Mr Chartwell is both gloomy, oftentimes menacing and quite disgusting, he is also weirdly charming. Those susceptible to this ‘charm’, let him into their lives despite his grotesque habits and behaviour and Hunt explores the idea that depression is both visited upon people and is also seductive once it has taken hold.
Esther was a totally lovely character and I had so much empathy for her. Her friends, Beth and her husband Big Oliver are funny, yet kind and sense a change, and their gentle support and love for their friend is an example of how Hunt’s characters in Mr Chartwell are a delight to read. Hunt’s version of an embattled Churchill was entirely convincing and his relationship with his wife tenderly depicted. It has been a long time since I read a book where I actually liked all the characters. Even Mr Chartwell is likeable in his way – I found it difficult to blame him for something that was so clearly his nature.
An original, funny and poignant novel and Rebecca Hunt’s writing is wonderful. Don’t be put off by the dark subject matter, Mr Chartwell is a joy to read.