Five Things About Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt
1. If I tell you this is a book about depression, you won’t want to read it. At least, I wouldn’t want to read it. Depression is real, yes, but depression also tends to be static; it clogs and slows and dilutes its victim. Which makes for boring fiction. So I won’t tell you that this book is about depression (because it’s not very true, anyway). I will instead tell you that this book is about Winston Churchill, which also isn’t tremendously true. Winston Churchill struggled with depression during his life, referring to it as a black dog. Well, in this book, depression is truly a black dog, six feet tall and smelly and just there. So there you go. This is practically a dog book.
2. Also, it’s not really about depression. It’s about strength. Possibly this makes it a not-depressing book with depression as a main character. Rebecca Hunt is a very clever wordsmith, and I had to stop a few times to read sentences out loud because of how very TRUE their contents were. I love a book that makes me nod and say “that’s exactly how it is! I never thought of it that way!” (Well, I don’t really say that. I just go GAH and read it out loud. But that’s what I mean.)
3. Plus, it’s funny. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how sadness and laughter live right next door to each other. This book nails that. Hunt is well aware of the humor inherent in a six foot tall dog named Mr. Chartwell looking for a room to let, and she runs with it.
4. The metaphor is pretty stinkin’ impeccable. I really think this exchange between one of the narrators, Esther, and the black dog, Mr. Chartwell, is a great example of both the book’s humor and the effectiveness of the metaphor. She has just asked him how it is that Mr. Chartwell affects Churchill, and he replies: “It’s hard to explain. 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. And then I like to lie around in the corner of the room, crying out like I have terrible injuries. Sometimes I’ll burst out at him from behind some furniture and bark in his face. During meals I’ll squat near his plate and breathe over his food. I might lean on him too when he’s standing up, or hang off him in some way. I also make an effort to block out the sunlight whenever I can.”
5. The novel never overstays its welcome. Short chapters fill its brief 242 pages, making for a speedy read. The conceit of a panting black dog following people around might have gotten old if Hunt had let it, but — unlike Mr. Chartwell — Hunt gives the reader precisely what is needed and then is gone before there can be an aftertaste.