There is no question about it, if you decide to read Mr Chartwell it will be necessary to suspend disbelief, in fact leave it way back around the corner and just immerse yourself in Rebecca Hunt's highly original and very imaginative conceit, which, for all its eccentricities and at times a faint hint of whimsy, does something very clever that for me made this a really worthwhile read.
You can either read this as a talking dog book with a simple, gentle but unassuming story, or you can read it as a book that crazes the surface, creating those hairline cracks which allow a reader to delve far deeper if they choose.
True, there were some elements that didn't quite work for me, one character whose name and personality didn't quite make it off the page, though that might have been the point and I may have missed something, because Mr Chartwell has hidden strengths which have really only become apparent since turning the final page, and for a debut novelist Rebecca Hunt shows much promise, witness the seven publishers bidding for this one.
Now in the telling of, it's nigh on impossible for me to share thoughts on the book without giving away the central premise and every review I've looked at does likewise, but as always, if I'm sharing my thoughts here, I offer you the chance to look away now if you think you'd rather read the book and let it dawn on you slowly.
So here's the cover so you know what the book looks like...
... now you can pootle off and find it. Penguin would doubtless hope I'd urge you to buy it but hopefully it will be in your library, Devon have thirteen copies which bodes well and please, please come back and let us know what you think.
Righto, for anyone who is still here...
Mr Chartwell seizes the very common condition of depression, anthropomorphizes it (never thought I'd use that word again after the OU exam when I mentioned Black Beauty) into the shape of the ubiquitous black dog Mr Chartwell (one that talks and is called Black Pat by his close acquaintances) and then has said dog knocking on the door of Esther Hammerhans home asking to rent a room because he has an assigment nearby.
'Mr Chartwell was unmistakably a dog, a mammoth muscular dog about six foot seven high... he did look similar to a Labrador...but a heavier set and strikingly hideous Labrador. There was nothing decorative about him...the monstrous grey tongue dangled, droplets of saliva spilling onto the floor.
Central to the structure and ultimate success of the novel, which sits alongside Ned Beauman's Boxer Beetle on this years Guardian First Novel Award shortlist, is the plot woven around Winston Churchill who famously named his own depression Black Dog, and it is this theme that Rebecca Hunt has mined in what seems to me a completely new and innovative way.
'It spoke again, quieter and closer now, close enough for him to feel that warm carniverous breath.'We both know why I'm here,'
'Bugger off, you tiresome bastard, ' Churchill said viciously.
The hot breath blew across his cheek, across his neck, 'We have an appointment.'
And it is an unlikely meeting in 1964 between Esther, young and widowed, and a House of Commons library clerk, and Sir Winston Churchill on the eve of his retirement from politics, that offers Churchill the chance to vanquish another enemy as Mr Chartwell starts to get a foothold in Esther's life and her home.
'Esther was fascinated to discover she secretly wanted Mr Chartwell to come to the house... ransacking her forlorn routine. It was a tonic of acid vibrancy and nerves...'
The dog is a strange mish-mash of complete disgust and slobbery and drooly loathing, mixed with some rather endearing qualities, a ticklish sense of humour and a lovely and very persuasive way with words, and besides, we all want to love a black labrador. However Rebecca Hunt slowly turns reader attentions away from the havoc that Mr Chartwell creates and points them towards what lies beneath, the insidious, destructive and damaging havoc of depression on people's lives.
Witnessing and laughing at the chaos a six foot seven high dog causes in Esther's home and I realised that I might also be close to witnessing the turmoil and wanton destruction that depression causes on the mind, no laughing matter.
There's a real and tangible sense of something indefinable being given shape and form, depression posing as the unwelcome but somehow insistent companion who becomes impossible to shake off, the one that assumes its place as a right, creeping in menacingly and unexpectedly at the most inopportune moments and refusing to budge.
The faithful dog that is just a little too faithful.
'Black Pat was baiting her and she was afraid of the intention behind it. But then this was replaced by a type of flaccid affection. He was her disgusting companion. Company, it was company.'
For Churchill that depression
'...churned the heart with thistles,'
and it is with a wealth of these brilliantly evocative descriptive moments that Rebecca Hunt digs deep into the mindset of depression giving what appears to be that seemingly naive and whimsical plot real hidden depths.
I had little idea that Churchill suffered from depression, or that it is now suggested that he may have had Bipolar disorder, so I have done a little exploring since and probably now have to read Anthony Storr's book Churchill's Black Dog because it is much-lauded and quoted everywhere and advances much evidence that Churchill's depression and its impact on his personality from a young age, with its possible origins in the circumstances of his childhood, served the nation uniquely and well,
"The kind of inspiration with which Churchill sustained the nation is not based on judgment, but on an irrational conviction independent of factual reality. Only a man convinced that he had a heroic mission, who believed that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, he could yet triumph, and who could identify himself with a nation's destiny could have conveyed his inspiration to others."
"...in 1940, his inner world of make-believe coincided with the facts of external reality in a way which very rarely happens... (he) became the hero that he had always dreamed of being. It was his finest hour. In that dark time, what England needed was not a shrewd, equable, balanced leader. She needed a prophet, a heroic visionary, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost. Winston Churchill was such a man; and his inspirational quality owed its dynamic force to the romantic world of fantasy in which he had his true being."
The Black Dog with its connections to depression and melancholy has its antecedents way back in history, it wasn't a Churchillian invention, but it certainly had Churchill by the scruff,
"I don't like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don't like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second's action would end everything. A few drops of desperation." - Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
So Mr Chartwell, a book that perhaps some may dismiss as a bit quaint and fanciful, but to my mind a clever and innovative debut novel, and one that leaves me eager to read whatever this writer turns her vivid imagination to next.
Like Ned Beauman, Rebecca Hunt another writer to watch.