Given my own illness, it is no surprise that I have a small section in my library devoted to books that deal with mental illness and most of them are nonfiction: Darkness Visible, Electro Boy, The Examined Life, and Touched With Fire are just some of them. When I saw Mr Chartwell in Hodges Figgis recently I was immediately intrigued. It’s a novel by Rebecca Hunt that deals with depression and the reviews listed on the back of the book all mention how funny it is. A humorous book about depression sounds like an oxymoron and I was interested to see if Ms. Hunt could pull it off.
Mr Chartwell is set over five days in July of 1964. It follows two main stories: that of Winston Churchill and the days leading up to his resignation from parliament; and that of Esther Hammerhans, a House of Commons library clerk who is recovering after her husband’s recent death. Churchill famously suffered from depression for most of his life and he used the expression “the black dog” to describe his illness. In Hunt’s novel the black dog is made real in the form of Mr Chartwell, or Black Pat, an enormous dog, bigger than a labrador, who walks on his hind legs and who persecutes Churchill.
Esther is looking for a lodger and Black Pat is the only one to answer her advertisement. Being English, she is of course far too polite to deal with the reality of an enormous talking dog wanting to share her house, and so Black Pat moves in causing chaos and destroying her clean suburban home. Churchill and Hammerhans’ paths cross and the ways they deal with their depression becomes the focus of the later part of the book. Esther’s seems to be reactive depression brought on by bereavement and Churchill’s, given his family history, is obviously clinical, therefore Black Pat stalks them in different ways.
Hunt has made a good job of using Black Pat to describe the physical symptoms of depression. Black Pat sprawls across Churchill’s legs, mimicking the leaden limbs that many sufferers of depression endure. He speaks in riddles and is negative and cynical, again showing the dysfunctional thought processes of someone in the midst of a depressive episode. He irritates Churchill with his lip-smacking and clumsiness and lumbering bulk; one of the symptoms of depression for many is uncontrollable irritability.
However even though Hunt captures the physicality well, I fear she has missed an opportunity to truly confront the mental horror of the illness. While it is obvious that Hunt intended this to be a light-hearted book, I felt that a couple of pages focussing on this would have been sufficient to provide a much-needed counterpoint to the levity.
In addition, and I have mentioned this point with regards to many recently published books, Mr Chartwell could have benefitted from a more thorough edit. The role of the editor has changed and the days of legends like Maxwell Perkins are long gone. Writers nowadays are supposed to be good editors as well and this can be an almost impossible task for someone who is so close to their own work.
Mr Chartwell is certainly an interesting take on depression although I wouldn’t be in whole-hearted agreement with the glowing reviews on the back. However it is Hunt’s first novel and I am interested to see where her career goes after this.