by Rebecca Hunt
Winston Churchill famously described the state of depression that affected him for much of his life as a 'black dog'. In Rebecca Hunt's début novel the metaphor has been made flesh or, perhaps more accurately, fur. Mr Chartwell, as he is known in the novel (named after Churchill's famous residence of course), is a black dog all right, but one who stands six feet and seven inches on his hind legs and speaks perfect English. Esther Hammerhans is understandably flummoxed when she opens her front door to the gentleman who is interested in the room she has to rent and is confronted by what seems to be a huge Labrador from whose 'monstrous grey tongue' droplets of of saliva fall to the floor. Churchill himself is less surprised by the reappearance of his long-time foe, greeting his presence with a terse 'bugger off'. I can think of plenty of books where animals have been anthropomorphised but here we have a mental state which has been both characterised and physicalised, a tactic that could have gone horribly wrong but which Hunt pulls off with great ease. The book has its shortcomings but there is a charm and sensitivity about it which tends to make you forgive and forget them.
Esther is a library clerk at Westminster Palace (the House of Commons to you and me) who is looking to fill the spare room in her home. We gather immediately that she hasn't always cut such a lonely figure but was widowed two years ago. When Mr Chartwell arrives at her door and she has got over her initial surprise she begins to probe into what exactly he does. His services it seems 'consist of periods of time when I visit specific people, people who experience a specific darkness.' That darkness is depression, something from which her husband Michael suffered, towards which Esther is heading and with which 'Churchill is a regular'. Rather neatly Hunt has Esther sent down to Churchill himself, who is on the verge of retiring from parliament, in order to help take down his final speech. When these two characters come together, each will recognise the other's association with the black dog immediately. These 'two unenthusiastic and melancholy allies driven together to complete a duty' will work together, Churchill able to impart his hard-won experience with this particular foe, his speech-making skills put to great use in order to try and release Esther from a lifetime association with his 'bête noire'.
Each of the characters is brilliantly differentiated through dialogue with Churchill unsurprisingly given some of the more delicious language. Mr Chartwell has been away from him for some time it seems and his reappearance at such a moment of finality makes his weight even more of a burden.
'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 honour my principles, labouring against the shadows you herald. I don't blench from my burden, but -' here he let out a deep breath, laying the glasses down gently - 'it's so demanding; it leaves me so very tired. It would be some small comfort to me if I could ask how long I must endure this visit. Please, when do you leave?'
But as Chartwell says rather chillingly to the resilient Esther, 'I can wait.' Esther misunderstands at first when Chartwell mentions depressing people, thinking of the physical act of adding weight but for both of them it is almost that physical. Chartwell does literally weigh them both down at times, in the way only a sleepy dog can, and for Churchill especially the experience of a lifetime makes the metaphorical weight of his legacy something far more manifest.
'I admit I feel such doubt about how I will be judged for the work I have done in my life. And now, as I prepare to leave it behind, I feel uncertainty bearing down on me.'
What adds a lightness to the novel is the charm that comes before that weight. As Esther discovers, Mr Chartwell is in many ways an intoxicating presence. For those who are lonely his company alone is refreshing and his devotion, like that of man's best friend, is complete, his attention to each of his clients unwavering. Depression it seems is a seducer, tempting the sufferer towards inaction, indolence and a breakdown of relationships and Hunt successfully embodies that in the great, black bulk of Mr Chartwell. The subtle shift that turns devotion to control is handled brilliantly and much of the novel's drive comes from wondering whether Esther will succumb to it or break free.
As one might expect from a début there are times when the writing tries a little too hard. The opening paragraph for example threatens to sink the book immediately.
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill's mouth was pursed as if he had a slice of lemon hidden in there. Now eighty-nine, he often woke early. Grey dawn appeared in a crack between the curtains, amassing the strength to invade. Churchill prepared himself for the day ahead, his mind putting out analytical fingers and then coming at the day in a fist, ready for it.
Later when Esther wakes suddenly, 'The primitive departments of her brain, the units that dealt with anciently evolved instincts, were wiring encrypted telegrams to her consciousness.' But for every sentence weighed down by too much forethought there are others that glide past with inspiration. The approach of evening that brings the kind of light that photographers call 'the magic hour' gives rise to one of the more arresting paragraphs.
Light made a pair of tennis shorts over the bedroom wall. A shirt dropped on the floor had developed a modest beauty, cultivating the painterly creases of a restaurant napkin. On the windowsill was a small balding plant. The magic of the late light made it gorgeous and exotic.
A 'migration into the dusk' is how Churchill describes the onward march of the physical body and with this quirky novel Hunt shows that whilst there is little that we can do to arrest the approach of that darkness, our mind remains a place where we can battle to stay in the light.