It’s a well-known fact that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill experienced periods of depression which he referred to as ‘the black dog’. Just a metaphor, of course, but what if the black dog was real? Rebecca Hunt has used this idea as her inspiration for one of the most bizarre books I’ve read for a long time!
It begins with the 89-year-old Churchill waking up one morning in 1964 to find that he’s not alone in the room; someone – or something – is sitting in the opposite corner. Later that morning, librarian Esther Hammerhans is preparing to welcome the new tenant who’s going to be renting her spare room. When she opens the door and is confronted by a huge black dog who introduces himself as Mr Chartwell, Esther is shocked but agrees to let him have the room. He needs to stay in the area for a few days, he says, while he’s visiting a client. But what is Mr Chartwell’s job and who is his mysterious ‘client’?
If you’re going to read Mr Chartwell you need to be prepared to keep an open mind and just accept that one of the protagonists is a dog or you’re not going to get very far with this book! I thought bringing the ‘black dog’ of depression to life was a wonderful idea. Mr Chartwell, or Black Pat as he calls himself, is a fascinating character (and not just because he’s a huge talking dog). He’s manipulative and controlling but sometimes behaves in a more dog-like manner and can even be quite charming and likeable. But although the reader knows what the dog represents (and Churchill knows it too, having been well acquainted with him for many years) Esther has no idea what’s going on and is completely in the dark as to why Mr Chartwell has chosen her house to visit.
Another interesting aspect of the book is that there are little details of Churchill’s life incorporated into the plot, both directly and indirectly. Some of the things he says in the book are based on things that the real Churchill was quoted as saying. And even the dog’s name, Chartwell, was the name of the Churchill family home in Kent.
I loved the opening chapters of this book but started to lose interest a little bit as I got further into the story. The overall tone was quite light (which I know it was probably intended to be) but I think it would have worked better for me if it had been more serious in places and if Mr Chartwell had been portrayed as a less likeable character. The first half of the book in particular is very whimsical, though it does turn darker towards the end where Hunt starts to explain the significance of some of the metaphors and how they relate to depression. Overall though, I thought this was an impressive debut novel and I’ll be looking out for more Rebecca Hunt books in the future.