Picture: Baigneuse (1910) by Leon Spilliaert
The main character of this novel is a dog. Not just any old pet, he is something of a celebrity: the Black Dog of depression. In her debut novel, Rebecca Hunt takes the often-used metaphor and transforms it into a very physical character who alternately charms, irritates, menaces and seduces his victims.
Set in 1964, the novel tells two interlocking stories, initally only connected by the presence of Mr Chartwell. The first is the story of Winston Churchill, who suffered from episodes of depression throughout his life and in fact was the person who popularised the image of the ‘black dog’ to describe this illness. At the age of 89, Churchill is facing his retirement from parliament. One morning he wakes to find a familiar but unwelcome canine guest lurking in his room. Meanwhile, a young librarian called Esther has advertised for a lodger to live in her spare room, and is surprised to find that the Mr Chartwell who turns up on her doorstep is a monstrous 6ft 7 labrador. She has never seen him before, but as the story progresses, it emerges that Mr Chartwell is not a complete stranger to her… The book takes place over a few days, following Esther and Churchill’s conversations and struggles with Mr Chartwell (or Black Pat as he is less formally known).
I found this book a very intense and interesting exploration of depression. I think making the illness into a character meant the author could really examine and analyse depression and draw out its many facets. I liked the way Black Pat constantly appeared at very plausible moments for both characters, when they are talking to friends or relatives, looking in a mirror, taking a bath. They attempt to ignore and outwit him by pretending to scribble notes or to read but are always aware of his looming presence. Black Pat is a constant distraction, which seems to reflect the way depression removes people from the present, makes it difficult to concentrate and interferes with relationships. So when Churchill is talking to his wife, or Esther with her friends, Black Pat is constantly interjecting and threatening to sabotage their relationships. He is like the critical voice inside your head that just won’t shut up. I have to say that I couldn’t see the charm in Mr Chartwell at all, I found him very annoying and was always hoping he would (as Churchill puts it) bugger off. However, as becomes increasingly clear throughout the book, he is a complex character, with mixed motivations and the capacity for sympathy as well as a compelling hunger, and it’s suggested he is forced to do what he does because of the unusual contract between him and his victims. In the book, Churchill refers to it as a ‘vile alliance’, or, in a beautiful image, depression is ‘a dark star in the constellation that forms me’.
The book raised some interesting questions about the attractions of depression, since on some level Esther does like and welcome Black Pat. She invites Black Pat to become her lodger and sometimes feels forlorn and bereft when he is away. I don’t really agree with the (possible) implication that it is a choice to be depressed because I think of clinical depression as an illness, although I can see that it is possible to surrender to melancholy, just as it is possible to fight against it. Mr Chartwell can be a comfortingly familiar companion. He is a ‘gothic seducer’, portrayed in a very physical way in the book. I liked the way the author describes the dog very vividly so that the reader can really imagine his huge bulk, the way he eats, his expressions, the way he can lie heavily in a corner of the room or on top of Churchill’s chest to prevent him from moving. Esther feels a weird physical attraction: ‘She imagined putting her arms around that neck…feeling it react with shimmering strength. His blackness was radiant in the rising dusk. A handsome spectre, he let her look.’ At other times, the physical nature of Mr Chartwell can be utterly repulsive and disturbing, which I think reflects the more serious side of depression.
Despite the parallels between the stories of Esther and Churchill, their encounters with Mr Chartwell are fairly different. Esther is young and it’s her first entanglement with the black dog, while he has been a constant visitor to Churchill, which in a way makes him easier to deal with and in another way a greater burden. Although I don’t know much about the details of his real life, I liked the way Rebecca Hunt fictionalised Churchill, as his voice came across as both poetic and witty, and it left me with an admiration for the way he coped bravely with the depression that afflicted him and several members of his family. The relationship between Churchill and his wife Clementine, who obviously love eachother very much, was quite moving. As the plot develops, the lives of Esther and Churchill are drawn closer together, and I was interested to see where the connection between the former prime minister of Britain and this young unknown woman working at Westminster would lead.
I probably haven’t given much idea of the humour of this book, which makes it really enjoyable to read. Some people might find Mr Chartwell amusing (although I think I mainly just disliked him), but I found the most entertaining characters were Esther’s friends, Beth and Big Oliver, and especially her awful boss, Dennis-John, who gives her amusingly insulting advice about her work, such as ‘do everything right, do it silently, paste on some rouge, wear something coherent with other women your age…’ Overall, I’d very much recommend this funny and moving novel, and look forward to seeing what Rebecca Hunt writes next.