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Mr. Chartwell

picture of book cover

How one feels about depression being personified by a large black dog that plagues Winston Churchill is likely dependent on how one feels about depression, dogs and the famous Prime Minister.
In Mr. Chartwell: A Novel   both Churchill and librarian Esther find themselves visited by an unwanted guest in the form of Black Pat, a massive dog who is both faithful and dangerous. He moves into Esther’s spare room, and soon takes over her house, drooling and leave fur wherever he goes. He intersperses his time with Churchill, draping across his chest or otherwise focuses on the task at hand, which is to depress and torture the retiring prime minister. He cracks bad jokes, he keeps secrets, but he’s not without feelings.
The analogy and magical realism can feel strained, and it’s a tad unclear if seeing Black Pat means one is depressed, or if it just means the person can recognize depression. There are times when you feel like the story will collapse under its central conceit. But to criticize Mr. Chartwell as not embodying depression is to believe that it’s the same for all people.
While there’s obstensibly a plot around Churchill coming to grips with growing old and Esther trying to move on after the death of her husband, it’s really a character study of two people, one of whom has a choice whether to kick Black Pat out. Hunt excels at descriptions, specifically around the dog’s physical appearance and in Esther’s loneliness. “Black Pat was baiting her and she was afraid of the intention behind it,” Esther realizes. “But then this was replaced by a type of flaccid affection He was her disgusting companion. Company, it was company.”
The idea of depression as a physical presence that provides comfort and annoyance to Esther nails how one’s grief or misery can feel better than nothingness. But Hunt has said, and I concur, that in the end Mr. Chartwell is a story about hope. Without giving anything away, the story climaxes with two speeches by Churchill that I found moving. I understand why the reviews on this book are so mixed, and that it’s not for everyone, but I have to commend it as bold, and worth reading.