A vivid battle with the black dog of depression
It is July 1964, and in London, young library clerk Esther Hammerhans, widowed for two years, decides to rent her late husband’s study to a lodger. But when Mr. Chartwell, the prospective tenant, arrives to inspect the premises, Esther is stunned to discover that he is a dog — an enormous, hideous, and loquacious black Labrador. Known more informally as Black Pat, the animal is in town to serve his client, Sir Winston Churchill. About to retire from Parliament and live out his remaining days in his country estate — Chartwell — the 89-year-old Churchill is coping with the return of his lifelong nemesis, what he calls the “black dog’’ of depression.
A drooling, stinky, but coy combination of The Joker, Hannibal Lecter, and children’s book character Clifford, Black Pat is that dog. And visible only to Churchill and to Esther — still raw and reeling from her husband’s suicide — he is all but irresistible.
“Mr. Chartwell,’’ the debut novel by Rebecca Hunt, is as delicious as it is audacious. Its plot poses the simple question: Will Esther prevent Black Pat from permanently moving in — possibly even kick him out of her house and life once and for all? The devices Hunt uses to gently propel the novel — the sympathetic and supportive friends, the potential love interest (with the sublime name of Mr. Corkbowl), the inspiring tenacity of Sir Winston himself — would, in lesser hands, be simply clichéd. But Hunt pulls off the balancing act between airy and merely superficial, between whimsical and merely slight.
She does it with language that is vivid and juicy, leavened with poignant moments like this one, after Esther thinks Black Pat has left the house: “The kitchen was impossibly empty without him. Outside the window a blackbird called with its brisk song. The broken silence healed back together. Soon shadows would grow down the walls as the evening became night, the night becoming late. Esther watched a sad film of herself enduring the dregs of the day, watched herself sitting here over a talentless meal, watched herself from behind as she scraped the food into the bin. And here was the scene where she washed up in socked feet, one sock worked loose and bent under her foot.’’
And when Black Pat returns and treats her to a grotesque and hilarious backyard barbecue featuring the crackling remains of the birds he has killed and the roasting of a shoe he has dug up from the garden — her late husband’s shoe — Esther realizes, “He was her disgusting companion. Company, it was company.’’
For Churchill, suffering from an organic depression, the black dog is a lifelong companion. But Esther’s despair is more situational. When she goes to Chartwell to transcribe what will be Churchill’s farewell speech upon retiring from Parliament, Black Pat takes up residence on the floor of the great man’s study. There, Sir Winston exhorts Esther through stirring wartime metaphor to recognize that “the battle is not with fighting to accept, but with accepting to fight.’’ In bringing the black dog to life and giving him voice, Hunt shows us the complexity of the relationship between depression and the people it afflicts. Black Pat is glossy and warm one minute, fetid and menacing the next. He is playful, gross, and above all, fiercely — yes, doggedly — devoted to his clients. When he promises with hot breath that, “if you let me love you it will be the longest love of your life,’’ Esther discovers that she is not ready to accept Black Pat’s seduction. And it is to Hunt’s credit that when this ominous and obnoxious hound vanishes — at least temporarily — from Esther’s life, we’re almost sorry to see him go.
Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer, can be reached at email@example.com.