Charismatic, dangerously seductive, Mr. Chartwell unites eminent statesman Winston Churchill at the end of his career and the vulnerable young London librarian Esther Hammerhans.Can they withstand Mr. Chartwell's strange, powerful charms and his stranglehold on their lives? Can they even explain who or what he is and why he has come to visit?
I know this was offered as an ER book. I had to look back at the description to see why I decided not to even request it. I think I was turned off thinking I’d be reading about Churchill and depression. Well, I was, but it was done in such an inventive manner and with a wonderfully light touch, that it really did work for me.
This debut novel provokes mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, it is well-written and unusually cogent for a novel whose center is mental illness; its depictions of grief-induced depression resonate truthfully and its female protagonist, Esther, is a sympathetic heroine without feeling overwrought or cloying.
The flip-side of the novel, however -- the side that includes Churchill and his life-long battle with clinical manic depression/bi-polar disorder -- strikes some false notes, at least for me. Hunt picks up the mythic metaphor of Churchill's "black dog" (the image Churchill supposedly used to signify his depressive periods and one whose shadow appears on the deceptively bright, chipper cover of the book) and runs with it, personifying depression as Black Pat, a massively threatening yet charmingly seductive combatant in the mental game which both Esther and Churchill are fighting.
My problem with this extension of the popular metaphor is that it firmly externalizes depression in a way that can feel very misleading to the reader who actually has depression. Depression is not a stranger at the door or even an enemy in the room -- it is your own twisted face sneering back at you, your own voice whispering that you are worthless, that your friends only tolerate you, that your lover only uses you, that your family finds you pathetic, that there is no meaning and no true joy and nothing worth reaching for. Depression is an internal enemy, and while the novel starts to hint at that parallel toward the end, I found that the externalized metaphor was taken too far in the bulk of the book, to the point that it became a frustration for the reader (me) rather than the emotional connection that it should have been.
In fairness, there are many things about the Black Pat character Hunt has created that do have a truthful resonance. Depression is incredibly seductive -- there is nothing easier to do, when that black weight starts pulling at the loose threads of your life, than to let the burden press you into the ground, to curl up and close up and give up. Depression does have a largeness in your life -- its effects are broadly destructive, it is unwieldy and impossible to ignore. And to fight depression is a complex but necessary act of defiance, in reality, self-defiance. I did appreciate Hunt's construction of an historically consistent Churchill, a protective force, representative of that constant mental struggle, battling upright against his particular demon, even into his last days.
I cannot accuse Hunt of counterfeiting such a darkly intimate experience, only of taking what was originally a psychologist's metaphor for the unexplainable a little too far. There is value in this novel -- in the end, it does acknowledge, subtly, that those who encounter the "black beast" (and I am more comfortable with that phrase, if we must, since personally I struggle to think of a black dog as anything other than cuddly) must and should fight, and that some can shake the darkness from their lives (those whose depression is born of grief or other external circumstances) and some must battle continuously because the beast is borne within their brains and cannot be fully exorcised.
As I read the novel, I struggled with it, but having finished it this afternoon and considered it, the bottom line is that the book can have a positive impact, even though it may frustrate certain readers. A worthwhile, if difficult, exercise.
A final note, in anticipation of some reactions: I do know that this novel is "only fiction", and obviously my own experience and my own current state of mind focuses my attention more minutely on certain details than others, but even were I not where I am now, I do feel that if a novelist places a particular mental illness at the center of her novel, she had better be sure her details in that regard can hold up to serious scrutiny. Otherwise, such a novel can hold only superficial entertainment (which is not terribly admirable for a book about depression) and little artistic or personal truth.
Esther Hammerhans is a widowed librarian with a room to rent. When a knock comes to her door from her would-be boarder, imagine Esther's surprise when she finds it's a large black dog who calls himself Mr. Chartwell. Mr. Chartwell is all dog - furry, smelly, hungry - but also quite human with eloquent speech and a convincing manner. He somehow persuades the reluctant Esther to take him in as a boarder.
For Mr. Chartwell, or Black Pat as he becomes, staying at Esther's has two advantages. First, it puts him near Winston Churchill, who is about to retire from Parliament. It also puts him near Esther, who is grieving over the loss of her husband. Black Pat can only be seen by people he's after - people who are depressed, grieving and maybe a little lonely. Winston and Esther are perfect for him.
Hunt's characterization is marvelous. Personifying depression as a big, clumsy, humorous and opportunistic dog was nothing short of remarkable. While Winston may have named it, Hunt gives Black Pat his character. Through Black Pat's actions, you can see how depression isolates people, offering them a sense of security in a world of otherwise happy people. Hunt's depictions of Winston Churchill and the meek Esther also add greatly to this novel. You root for them both, hoping they can kick the proverbial dog to the curb.
Thankfully, I've never suffered from depression, so I can't say if Hunt's depiction of this disease is correct or not. I can say, though, that Hunt delivers an inventive and compelling story that gives readers a view of this disease - perhaps one no one has considered. Despite the darkness of depression, after finishing Mr. Chartwell, I was left with a sense of hope that people can overcome this condition - and move on to brighter points in their lives.
I don't want to give much away, not because there's some trick at the end, but because I think that sometimes it's better to start reading something without much of an idea of where it's going to go. I waited a long time for this book, and I wasn't at all disappointed.
Her unique concept? What if depression were a physical entity? What if Winston Churchill's "Black Dog of Depression" was, in fact, a big black dog? And where does that dog live when he's not bothering Churchill?
On intimate terms with Churchill - and many members of Churchill's family - the Black Dog takes on increased significance in the final days leading to Churchill's retirement from Parliament. So the walking, talking dog is spending more time with Churchill and needs to find a nearby room to rent. Enter Esther, with a story of her own, unsure of how she feels about letting the dog into her house.
Hunt parses out bits of Esther's story in such a way that you're never 100% sure what the full story will end up being. Both the dog (Mr. Chartwell) and even Churchill end up serving as conduits to understand a character which may have initially seemed expendable.
Having dealt with depression in my own life, I can attest to how it is like what Ms. Hunt portrays Mr. Chartwell to be. A mangy, annoying, loud dog skulking about, refusing to leave, worming his way into your every thought. At first I was a bit annoyed by the appearance of a creature I thought belonged in a fantasy book, but as the novel progressed I began to see Mr. Chartwell for who he was and what he represented, and then things began to get interesting.
Even if depression is not something you've ever dealt with, this book gives each reader a solid look at what it is like to be in those black depths, to feel the despair and annoyance and be completely unable to claw your way back to the light. It gives a picture of what it is like to overcome and to succumb and I think it's a read that was definitely worthy of my time.
Mr. Chartwell is a very quiet, unaffected read. At times, I believe it could use a good charge of action and drama. Otherwise, though thoughtful and intriguing, the book is a bit slow to hold reader's attention. I appreciate Ms. Hunt's wit and ability to portray a complicated emotion in realistic--and even inviting--terms. Mr. Chartwell will do for a rainy afternoon read, drowsing in a favorite armchair.
The two main characters, Winston Churchill and Esther Hammerhans, make for a very interesting contrast. They are each visited by the “black dog” (the name that Churchill used for the depression that beset him during his life) – “Mr. Chartwell” or “Black Pat”, but with very different results.
Esther, who lost her husband nearly two years ago, has only begun to know this black embodiment of depression.
“Esther awoke with a gentle jolt. The primitive departments of her brain, the units that dealt with anciently evolved instincts, were wiring encrypted telegrams to her consciousness. They told Esther in a subtle siren that Black Pat was near. The sirens were insistent, he was very close. It took a minute of hard concentration as she listened through the shades of silence, but then it came. Underneath the sound of the sleeping street, the sound of her own breathing, was the ambiance of an animal.”
Churchill, however, has known this dark presence for many, many years. “I understand that we share a wicked union, and I know the goblin bell which summons you comes from a tomb in my heart. And I will honor my principles, labouring against the shadows you herald. I don’t blench from this burden, but” – here he let out a deep breath, laying the glasses down gently – “it’s so demanding; it leaves me so very tired.”
The melancholy of the story of two people connected by this unseen but overwhelming presence, comes not only from the two of them but from Mr. Chartwell himself. The reader gets the sense that although he accepts his task of guarding them and not leaving them alone – he understands how dreadful it is.
“I’ve wondered on occasion whether you were there, waiting to stake your flag from the moment my soul entered this world.”
“I didn’t come until sent for.” Black Pat’s eyes were like leeches on him. “But I’ve been a companion to others around you, so I’ve never been far away.”
The “black dog” though used by Churchill, works well in the story. Other types of animals might have worked, but there’s something about the unavoidable smell, hulking size, overpowering fur and muscle that works very well. Even when not front and center, Chartwell’s sheer bulk makes it so that Esther/Churchill are aware of his presence at all times.
“It’s a love with a capacity you have no concept of.” Black Pat said with a hot voice. “It’s a love that would endure beyond the precinct of your days with a ferocity you can’t hope to equal.”
“Boundless, endless, friendless ferocity.”
“No,” Esther said after a speechless period, her eyes dark holes. “That’s not love, it’s possession.”
The draw of this beast, the consuming nature of his presence, forces not only a young librarian but one of the most powerful men in the history of the world to fight. Fight demons both inside and outside themselves. This “dark star in the constellation which forms me...” is the center of this poignantly lovely novel.
When Black Pat isn’t busy hounding Esther and making her uncomfortable, he’s on the other side of town menacing the great Winston Churchill on the eve of his retirement from public office. But whereas Black Pat is somewhat gentle and self-deprecating in his dealings with Esther, he’s a lot more ferocious and malignant to Churchill. Sitting on his chest and making it impossible for him to move, or whispering horrible things to him from the corner of the room, Black Pat is a terrible specter that haunts Churchill malevolently.
As Esther and Churchill battle the black dog of depression, they come to find that Black Pat is not only destructive, but also very unwilling to let them go. When an unexpected meeting between Churchill and Esther is scheduled, the two recognize that they are both being haunted by the same menace, and the battle between these two and Black Pat intensifies. With witty verve and a startling poignancy, Hunt manages to catch the elusive ramifications of the depression that Churchill once described as a “black dog” with both a humor and horror that will delight readers to their core.
One of the things I found so remarkable about this book was Hunt’s ability to capture all the melancholy and dread of the depressive state through her clever use of the black dog in her narrative. When Black Pat first arrives, he negotiates with Esther over whether or not she’ll let him stay, finally sliding in when her defences are down. This is symbolically accurate from the accounts of depression I’ve read. Later in the story, Esther and Churchill speak about the menace of the black dog being akin to warfare, in which the depressive person must staunchly maintain his defenses from the ceaseless attack of Black Pat. It was curious that Black Pat’s strategy differed between his victims, and I grew to recognize that in his initial attack of Esther, he was turning on the charm and hoping to wiggle in under her radar. Later things would be different, as they were with Churchill. Once the dog was granted admittance for the first time, he was free to take over and became horribly abusive and cloying.
Black Pat is the embodiment of depression to a T. Capable of being darkly humorous in his initial attack, he’s portrayed here as obstinate, vulgar and persistent, even as he is uncharacteristically charming and self-aware. Though Churchill has faced Black Pat many times before and knows his opponent, Esther is completely unaware of the danger in letting him linger and is surprised to discover just who her boarder really is. In both cases, the dog makes both a physical and mental nuisance of himself, sometimes playful and other times ominous. He regards his role in the lives he usurps as lamentable but necessary and often claims his existence and persistence is not within his control, believing that he is summoned by affinity. Black Pat is inventive and wily while also being profound and deep. He can be intolerably rude, coarse and undignified, but in him resides a kernel of remorse that he wishes wasn’t there. Though he is dogged (no pun intended) and charming at times, he’s also fierce and dangerously destructive.
Though I’ve described the bleaker aspects of this book, it also was rather funny, which was an unexpected surprise. The relationship between Esther and her boss was a source of many snickering laughs, as were some of the conversations and situations that arose with Black Pat. The book melded both profundity and laughter in a perfect package that at times delighted and often made me ponder depression in a way I hadn’t before. The narrative was also filled with some unique and well-developed characters, who rounded out the story very nicely and gave a lot of heft to what may have otherwise become a thin farce of a narrative. It’s not often that I laugh aloud at a book, but I did so here, which sort of startled me because one wouldn’t expect to find this particular topic amusing.
I was also struck by the surprising outcome of the story, for even as I loathed Black Pat, I grew to appreciate him in some ways despite my reluctance. I ended up feeling enormously sorry for him in one sense, and in another I was glad to see him in such reduced circumstances. It was a curiously odd feeling to hate and yet admire a creature so repulsive and all-consuming, but I have to honestly admit that I did. Black Pat was a villain whom I came to care about, though I knew he was rotten to the core. I think part of this had to do with his ability to sympathize with his victims and his need to warn them of his trickery. This made him seem almost a victim of his own circumstances and made me feel that there was more to him than I had first suspected. He was altogether perplexing, in both good and bad ways, and not a character whom I will likely forget.
I found this book to be utterly amazing and superbly crafted. The originality of the material coupled with characters that were believable and well-rounded made this a book that I would recommend to a host of readers. In addition to its very nuanced story, the humor of the tale is something I think a lot of readers will find unexpectedly welcome and winning. If you’re on the fence about this book, I would encourage you to take a chance and see what all of the fuss is about. It was an excellent read. Highly recommended.
Rebecca Hunt has written a truly innovative tale- a fast, enjoyable read.
Overall, this is a well-written book with an interesting premise - the physical embodiment of the idea of a black dog one's shoulder as a metaphor for depression as a giant, messy, slobbering, humanoid-and-yet-awfully-doglike actual dog that can only be perceived by those whom he comes to torment - and tries to tell a story about the nature of sadness and depression but ultimately doesn't wind up making much of a point about it. Or, to be more precise, I found it so hard to care I'm not sure if it was really making any point.
I had two issues with the book, which I really did want to like. One is that things like the frequent dangling modifiers are not only distracting in this book but also serve to obscure the author's meaning. I could not tell whether Hunt was using poor grammar intentionally as a tool to disorient the reader at times, or whether some parts of the book just weren't as well edited as others. (On the whole, the writing is actually quite good.) The second is that while there are some vague platitudes about fighting depression and not giving in to the black dog, they neither ring true nor achieve any larger point about the nature of any person's struggle with depression. So much about the way the dog acts as a metaphor for depression are fantastic in here - the way shed fur covers everything in the main character's house, and the way she can't bring herself to try to clean it up, rings very true - but the characters feel like paper dolls, with personalities hung on them by hidden paper tabs. It's hard to care about any of them, even though one wants to.
This wasn't a bad book or a bad read, I just hoped for something much better to come out of this idea. Making the dog physically real to the people he haunts (for lack of a better verb) isn't a revolutionary idea at all, but I was hoping the execution would be, and it just wasn't.
A story about Winston Churchill, a young woman named Esther and a massive black dog called Mr Chartwell, who walks on his hind legs and talks. The intrigue of this introduction alone leads you to read on.
The writing at first seems a little hesitant, almost as though the author isn’t quite sure and is trying too hard. The language used is sometimes beautiful but it doesn’t seem to flow as it should. However, the writing becomes more confident as you graduate into the story and if you stick with it you start to get into a rhythm and appreciate the art that is being crafted as you read. I feel the author has enjoyed playing with the words and there are some fantastic lines.
Without giving anything away, once you know who and what Mr Chartwell is, the story takes on a whole new meaning. You want to read on to discover the relationship between this unusual dog and the other character’s in the story. You need to know how they are going to respond to him, and who will be the victor.
It is an easy book to read; I finished it in a day. The chapters are short and punchy; the language creative but clear. That said, it isn’t a particularly light subject matter, but by utilising the concept of Mr Chartwell the author has managed to inject humour and a familiarity into what could have been a pretty gloomy tale.
The story looks at a difficult topic from an unusual angle, derived from Mr Churchill himself. There are funny moments, for example the bathroom scenario in Chapter 15, and in spite of what Mr Chartwell is he comes across as an almost lovable character and I think that’s a key point in this story.
I was surprised by this book, both by how the story developed and how it touched me. It is imaginative and clever and despite some initial apprehension I found it to be a very enjoyable read.
Mr. Chartwell is enjoyable, funny (!), and different from the vast majority of books being published. I was so pleased when my ER copy finally arrived, and the wait turned out to be well worth it.
When widowed and lonely young librarian Esther Hammerhans advertises for a boarder, she is unprepared for who turns up to take the room. A huge, talking black dog who walks on his hind legs and cracks impenetrable jokes and whose name is Black Pat is not exactly whom she expected. But she finds herself unable to say no and he moves into her spare room, and, from there, into the rest of her life and her house. After an encounter with Churchill in which each recognizes the other as an unwilling companion of the obnoxious dog, Esther comes to realize that if she cannot find the willpower to deny Black Pat entry into her life, she will be trapped with him for the rest of her life...which might not be terribly long under his baleful influence.
A dark subject, lightly treated.
The fictitious Esther works in a library and is depressed, with good reason, but the depression is threatening to destroy her life. The very real Winston Churchill is chronically depressed, and has learned to accept depression's company. Even so, at the end of his career, it is weighing heavily on him. Of course, circumstances eventually intertwine their lives. Throughout, there is Black Pat, a black dog, or perhaps more aptly, the black dog. And he is quite an entertaining, if not exactly loveable, entity. Both Esther and Churchill have people who love them and want to help, perhaps more than either of them will ever know.
The writing is quirky, with sentences like:
The span of time allocated to life was a drop of milk diluting in thin tentacles through the ink of Black Pat, and his answer was duplicitous in a way Clementine could not yet conceive.
It is also often written in passive rather than active voice, and it seems appropriate for the story as some of the characters are often passive when action would be more appropriate.
I liked this book and I am glad I read it, but I can't decide whether I love it. I do suggest to anyone who may read it that she not read too much of the description. Even though some of the interesting things happen very early in the book, it is more fun to discover them for oneself. The quote came from an advance reader's edition, so may change in the published edition. I am thankful to the publisher for providing a copy for my review.
In Mr. Chartwell, first-time author Rebecca Hunt does an amazing job of representing depression as "other." Black Pat is an unwelcome, oppressive, stubborn entity visited upon those who are unlucky enough to suffer. He is indifferent to class and circumstance; he refuses almost all offers and demands to leave the sufferer be. Hope is the only defense. Though the book is about depression, it is not depressing. Hunt is able to illustrate love, support, longing, frustration, friendship, fear, and hope among her characters. Even Black Pat is multidimensional; he's loyal, gruff, jokey, insistent, and even playful. In the end, Mr. Chartwell is a touching snapshot of a few days in the life of two people living rich and perhaps greatly satisfying lives who have also been affected by depression.
As an aside: I am a librarian with personal experience with how people and families are affected by depression. I also recently visited London and Kent and toured Chartwell. This book felt very personal to me. However, the book's themes are universal; no knowledge of WWII history, libraries, or depression is necessary to appreciate this well written book.
Heed my warning...if you're looking for a fun, whimsical piece of British literature...this is not the book for you.
I was immediately drawn into the story because of the shroud surrounding Mr.Chartwell and his intentions. While at first he seems like a friendly enough visitor, you soon discover that his intentions are not as they seem, and he's exactly the type of company you don't want in your house.
I thought Winston Churchill was an admirable character in terms of how he confronted and dealt with Mr. Chartwell. I don't know that I could stand being constantly nagged by someone or something like Mr. Chartwell and remain sane, although I guess one could argue the point of Sir Churchill's sanity.
Esther, who I regard as the main character since much of the action in the story revolves around her, was a little disappointing to me. When I realized who Mr. Chartwell was and what he really wanted from Esther, I was screaming for her to say "NO!" It was maddening watching her consent to the whims of Mr. Chartwell. However, she began to redeem herself once she crossed paths with Sir Churchill who gave her some of the soundest advice I've ever stumbled across..."Do not consent to the descent."
My three favorite characters were Corkbowl, Big Oliver, and Beth. They were necessary to the story's survival, because if I didn't believe that they would make me laugh during a point where the story was beginning to get immensely sad, I probably would have stopped reading the book half way through.
In essence, this book wasn't really what I expected it to be, and I'm not faulting it for that. I'm only giving it three stars, because if I had known the true subject matter of the book, I probably wouldn't have bought it. Also, the language was a bit choppy. I'm all for creative license and writing however you want, but there were way too many fragments throughout the book, and it was increasingly difficult to read so many short, incomplete thoughts. I suppose if these fragments had been in the form of speech I might be more willing to accept them. I should also note that I'm giving this three stars because I think the story was supposed to have some profound effect on me, but it didn't. Good first try, though, Rebecca Hunt. Moral of the story...if a Mr. Chartwell comes knocking at your door...don't let him in!
I've always been the type to shy away from historical fiction, but I must admit that this book is not only well-constructed but let's you see history from a different point of view.
Mr. Charwell, or Black Pat is a big black dog. A big black dog that can talk.
In the book he is shown in the lives of two people, Winston Churchill and Esther Hammerhans. He is the legendary "black dog" that bothers Churchill throughout his life. He is also the new tenant at Esther's house.
Throughout the series it is hinted as to what Black Pat really represents and upon realizing it, the two main human characters can learn to live through their "ordeal".
I loved this book from page one. It is a story that occurs over the course of five days, and yet the story changes the two humans forever. Chruchill learning how much Black Pat is tied to him, while Esther realizes the truth of what happened to her husband and her.
I recommend it to anyone interested in Churchill as it provides a different insight to what the man went through, as well as anyone who has ever gone through depression.