Winston Churchill famously described his depression as a “Black Dog”; the premise of Rebecca Hunt’s first novel is that there really was a black dog – Black Pat Chartwell, a six-foot-seven talking dog who walks on his hind legs. The events of Mr Chartwell take place in July 1964, in the week running up to Churchill’s retirement from Westminster (and scant months before his death). Black Pat becomes a lodger in the home of Esther Hammerhans, a clerk in the House of Commons library. Just as Churchill is steeling himself for the end of his parliamentary career, so Esther is watching the calendar with trepidation; the two will come together by novel’s end, and the shadowy figure of Black Pat will never be far away.
Reading Mr Chartwell, there’s no doubt that we’re in the hands of a singular new talent. Hunt has an ear for a striking image (e.g. “Terrified, she spoke with all the pepper of lettuce,” [p. 9]); sometimes (as with the example I’ve just given), I was left unsure just how well the imagery actually worked – but, at its best, it’s very good indeed; and I’d much rather have a distinctive authorial voice that takes a few risks than a generic one that plays it safe.
Literalising Churchill’s metaphor of depression, as Hunt does (and it’s no secret: Black Pat declares his identity on page 38), is an interesting move, because it allows the author to demonstrate in a very concrete way how depression encroaches on the protagonists’ lives. Both Churchill and Esther are shown to be putting up a shield to the outside world – he, his bons mots; she, a nondescript appearance and manner. We see how Black Pat inveigles his way beneath both characters’ façades, at the same time as his physical presence intensifies (for example, the increasing amounts of hair and mess he leaves around Esther’s house represent Black Pat’s growing closer to her).
However, I came away from Mr Chartwell feeling that it hadn’t quite achieved what it seemed to be aiming for. Black Pat never seemed to be quite a sinister enough presence, nor his gaining of influence over Esther delineated quite clearly enough, for the novel to be fully effective. But it’s an interesting read for all that, and it places Hunt squarely on my list of writers to watch.