Written by Rebecca Hunt
Random House, 2011; 256 pages
First published 2010
July 1964. London. Esther Hammerhans, a young librarian in the House of Commons, goes to answer the door to her new lodger. Through the windowpane she sees a vast silhouette. Meanwhile, in Chartwell, Kent, on the eve of his retirement from Parliament, Sir Winston Churchill has just woken up. There's someone in the room with him, someone he's known for a long time, but it's not a friend. A dark, mute presence is watching him with rapt concentration. Both the humble librarian and the eminent statesman have just been visited by Black Pat. For the man who saved Western civilization, this "black dog" is all too familiar. For Esther, he's a weirdly charming, deeply unnerving stranger just come to rent a room. Or is he here to stay?
Rebecca Hunt's Mr. Chartwell is certainly an odd and interesting book -- I enjoyed reading it and loved the awful character of Black Pat (Mr. Chartwell). I was a little skeptical at first -- a book about a gigantic talking dog, supposedly real or completely imaginary, isn't really something I'd usually choose to read. But Black Pat is definitely not just any talking dog. He can be disarmingly human and charmingly mutt-like at the same time. And then he can be disgustingly human and repulsively mutt-like, too. And also very, very sinister. But always intriguing.
The character stems, of course, from Churchill's "black dog" of depression, a ghost that haunted him all his life. I've wrestled with the dark beast of depression myself, and understand how debilitating it can be, but also how strangely attractive. I thought Hunt portrayed the problem very adroitly.
The one thing that bothered me all the way through, however, was the lack of period detail to ground the story in the time period of the book. Just a few extra touches of 1960s worldview would have been nice. But that's just nitpicking on my part. Overall, I thought this was a wonderful tale, and Rebecca Hunt is an exciting new writer. I'll be looking for more of her work in the future.