Winston Churchill battled depression all his life, referring to his illness as the black dog. In her debut novel, Mr. Chartwell, London-based author Rebecca Hunt runs with the metaphor, embodying depression as a massive black dog that hounds sufferers. Unfortunately, while the book offers some genuinely touching and hopeful insights, it’s also profoundly flawed.
About half the text follows Churchill’s struggle with depression in the days leading up to his farewell speech to Parliament. These chapters are well executed: The black dog, or Black Pat, as he calls himself, personifies the symptoms of depression. He lies on Churchill so he can’t get out of bed, and destroys his enjoyment of small pleasures, snuffing out a cigar and batting a fresh strawberry out of his hands. The parts involving Churchill’s wife, Clementine, offer a particularly poignant look at the way depression affects not only the sufferers, but those closest to them.
The weaknesses come in the other half of the novel, which follow librarian Esther Hammerhans. As she nears the two-year anniversary of her husband’s death, she decides to rent out his study, and Black Pat moves in. Their early interactions are just weak talking-animal comedy, starting with her shock that her new tenant is a sentient dog. Black Pat prepares a barbecue of waterfowl he’s caught, begs for food, eats shoes, and drinks gin and tonic out of a watering can because his massive maw is too big for a conventional glass. The book is only 242 pages long, but the middle section drags on as Hunt focuses on Esther’s close friends trying to get her to move on. A few good lines are sprinkled throughout, but most of these sections are saccharine or play out like a bland office sitcom, as Esther’s best friend risks the ire of their awful boss to try keep Esther in good spirits and set her up with a new coworker. The dialogue never feels organic; too often, it’s laced with plays on language and quotes, and the supporting cast is thinly developed.
Things pick up again once Esther realizes the full menace of Black Pat as he moves from the memory-filled study to taking over the house and following her to work and her friend’s home. Hunt neatly builds in a scene with Churchill, Esther, and Black Pat that shows the cruelty of mood disorders in the age before antidepressants. Esther falls into depression due to circumstances, making her capable of truly defeating it. Churchill, like his father and daughter, is afflicted through genetic destiny. The meeting between them becomes one of the book’s most hopeful moments: Churchill does his best to offer Esther a lifetime of advice, because in the end, the worst thing Black Pat does is persuade his victims not to talk about him.