Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Mr. Chartwell," by Rebecca Hunt

In “Mr. Chartwell” (Books on Tape/Random House, 2011, read by Susan Duerden), Rebecca Hunt animates the famous “black dog” (his own words) of depression that Winston Churchill suffered from his whole life. The metaphorical concept here becomes a huge, real, speaking black dog, one whom only a few people can see and hear. The dog haunts Churchill and others, including the other main character of this book, Esther Hammerhans, a librarian at the House of Commons in London. She has lost her beloved husband to suicide, and when the black dog, variously called Mr. Chartwell and Black Mac, comes to stay as a lodger with her, she comes to understand that he had haunted her husband and now wants to move in with her. The rest of the story is about her struggle to resist him, despite his occasional charm and persuasiveness. At one point Esther meets the elderly, about-to-retire Churchill, and they each realize that the other can see and hear the dog; Churchill knows he can now never escape the dog and the depression himself, but he tries to give Esther encouragement and psychological weapons to fight off the dog and the depression while she is still young and before it is too late for her. I have probably told you too much of the plot, but honestly I don’t really recommend the novel, so I don’t feel bad about telling you this much. For one thing, the story is, well, depressing. And second, the dog character is a weird mixture of person and dog, and is rather disgusting at times. The depression-as-an-actual-black-dog is an interesting conceit, the story made for an entertaining-enough listen during a road trip, and of course I enjoy stories of England and especially London. But otherwise I would have had no reason to read the novel, or to urge you to read it.
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