During his lifetime, Sir Winston Churchill struggled with depression and was quite candid about his battle with the dark disease. Churchill often referred to his bleak moods as the Black Dog, and his metaphor has now been transformed and brought to life by novelist Rebecca Hunt in Mr. Chartwell.
As one might expect, Hunt’s debut novel features her inspiration, Churchill, but the true star of the novel is Hunt’s own creation: a young librarian named Esther Hammerhans who has a terrible burden of her own weighing her down. When Esther decides to sublet a room in her house, she never imagines who—or what—will walk through her door. Much to her surprise, the only response she receives to her advert comes from Mr. Chartwell, a hulking, vaguely sinister brute of a dog. Despite her repulsion, Esther cannot help but feel oddly comforted by and drawn to Mr. Chartwell, and hesitantly opens up her home to him.
Unfortunately for Esther, Mr. Chartwell may not be content with simply claiming Esther’s home as his own, but may instead have his sights set on Esther herself. As Esther struggles to resist Mr. Chartwell’s advances, she finds an unlikely ally in Churchill when she is sent by her library to help him type up a speech regarding his impending retirement. Though the two have little in common, Churchill understands all too well the nefarious adversary Esther faces.
Spanning the course of just six days, Mr. Chartwell is a tightly coiled novel that covers a lot of ground in a short time frame. Hunt deftly explores the intricacies of depression with the empathy and sensitivity that the topic deserves, but avoids veering into maudlin territory. Readers who can accept a novel that features a talking dog will find much to admire in Hunt’s inspired look at the inner lives of her characters and the disease that haunts them. Punctuated with moments of quintessentially English humor, Hunt’s novel has an impressive lightness in its handling of depression, yet the book is pervaded with a calm, contemplative sadness that quietly demands a deeper emotional response from the reader. It is tempting to race through its pages to discover the ultimate fates of Esther and Churchill, but this is a novel that is best appreciated with slow and careful reading.