What an extraordinary first novel. Rebecca Hunt has taken an audacious, ambitious premise, and executed it in an insightful, rich way. Winston Churchill is a well-known depressive who referred to his sometime companion as The Black Dog. Hunt has personified The Black Dog with Mr. Chartwell, the new (canine) boarder at the home of librarian Esther, who is a widower. His presence is entirely unwelcome, yet strangely irresistible. Esther allows him to move in, but resents his presence. He has moved to be conveniently situated near Winston Churchill, who is reflective on the eve of his retirement from Parliament, but he has other jobs as well. This novel really should have been a disaster with this premise. A dog who walks on two legs and affects human manners (though not so well that he can resist chomping on a bone in the hallway) sounds laughable, and not in a good way. But Hunt approaches the subject of depression with sensitivity and deep understanding, and "Mr. Chartwell" embodies it nobly, with messy rudeness and plaintive pleas for understanding.
Hunt's language reveals a sensitivity to the nuances of depression, as well as an elegant precision. Churchill says that "the prospects of retirement could not yet be fully contemplated, being too full of awful passion. It churned the heart with thistles."*** Esther feels that "...the weeks of her life had drifted past as ghosts. There was the rare bump of pleasure, perhaps from a meal out or a visit to the cinema, but it was brittle and shattered under the lonely monotony of the ghost days." But she doesn't immediately recognize that her relationship with "Black Pat" is much more complicated than that of a landlord and boarder. He explains his "job" to her, nicely summing up the symptoms of depression: "With Churchill we know each other's movements, so we have a routine, I guess. I like to be there when he wakes up in the morning. Sometimes I drape across his chest. That slows him down for a bit..." Churchill speaks to Black Pat with familiarity, even affection, but also with bitter resentment. He always knew that Black Pat would return for Churchill's retirement, and he reluctantly accepts the presence.
Hunt's Churchill is fully believable and complex, a great man plagued by doubt, dreading retirement. Esther represents a different stage of visitation by depression, still adjusting to Black Pat's charms. She is also a well-developed character in her own right; a young widow still mourning her husband and coming to terms with loss while attending to new and old friendships and her job, which eventually leads her to Churchill's study to take dictation. Their encounter is the crux of the novel, beautifully exquisite and surprising.
I fully expect this to be my favorite novel released in 2011. Hunt's writing is utterly inventive and surprising, her story told with wisdom and sensitivity.
***All quotations are taken from an uncorrected proof and should be checked against a final copy, tentative publication date 2/22/11.
FTC Source Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader's Edition from the publisher.
An interesting discussion of Churchill's history with depression can be found here.