Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

This imaginative story, set in 1964 London, begins when Esther Hammerhans, a librarian in the House of Commons, welcomes a new lodger. It’s Black Pat, as Mr. Chartwell prefers to be addressed, “a black dog,” a dark presence trying to enter Esther’s world.  Esther finds him witty and charming but also annoying and smelly yet she may want him to stay.  Black Pat’s a specter but he seems completely real to Esther. Meanwhile just before his retirement from Parliament, 89-year-old Winston Churchill awakens to Black Pat visiting his bedroom as he’s done for many years.  Black Pat is the black dog of depression that’s hounded Churchill for much of his life. Esther, still grieving the loss of her young husband, is ripe for the seductive powers of depression in this original look at the grip depression holds on so many.

Esther’s friends recognize her grief and a new co-worker offers companionship and a silly sarcasm that awakens her but is that enough to stave off the black dog?  Esther is called to Chartwell, Churchill’s home, to take dictation for his retirement speech.  That it happens to be the anniversary of her husband’s death is a coincidence that works in author Hunt’s apt hands. Will Esther and Churchill help each other or will the black dog prevail? 

This novel will make readers laugh out loud at the irony and clever bon-mots that the bête noire utters. Then within seconds, the careful layering of the descent and struggles the characters endure as they fight their depression will have readers close to tears. Rarely does such a singularly original novel have such charm and universal appeal.  This tale is supremely engaging yet it will make readers ponder why some master darkness while others succumb to it.  Readers that love language and dry, dry humor will find that the wittiness makes the darkness palatable. Black Pat’s ebullient character actually makes the mine field of depression captivating and he seems ripe for a movie version.

One question this book raises is whether people who suffer depression would want to read this and if they did could it help them.  A lay person shouldn’t answer that question yet somehow the sensitivity of this novel makes it seem that it might be welcomed by those with depression or those hoping to understand them.

Summing it Up: Read this original and inspiring debut novel that shows the odd connection between Winston Churchill and a young librarian for the imaginative language, humor, and perceptive look at the world of depression.

Rating: 5 stars    

Category: Fiction, Sushi with Green Tea Sorbet, Book Club
Publication date: February 8, 2011

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