Monday, May 2, 2011

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt — 256 pgs

Mr. Chartwell: A NovelWhen librarian Esther Hammerhans decides to rent out her box room to a boarder, she’s horrified to discover a huge black dog at her door inquiring about the vacancy. But this dog is like none other, for he can speak eloquently and wryly, and seems to have an uncanny way of getting into Esther’s subconscious. Though renting to this absurd creature is the furthest thing from her mind, the dog, known as Black Pat, is soon in residence, and Esther’s life is slowly spiraling into melancholy.

When Black Pat isn’t busy hounding Esther and making her uncomfortable, he’s on the other side of town menacing the great Winston Churchill on the eve of his retirement from public office. But whereas Black Pat is somewhat gentle and self-deprecating in his dealings with Esther, he’s a lot more ferocious and malignant to Churchill. Sitting on his chest and making it impossible for him to move, or whispering horrible things to him from the corner of the room, Black Pat is a terrible specter that haunts Churchill malevolently.

As Esther and Churchill battle the black dog of depression, they come to find that Black Pat is not only destructive, but also very unwilling to let them go. When an unexpected meeting between Churchill and Esther is scheduled, the two recognize that they are both being haunted by the same menace, and the battle between these two and Black Pat intensifies. With witty verve and a startling poignancy, Hunt manages to catch the elusive ramifications of the depression that Churchill once described as a “black dog” with both a humor and horror that will delight readers to their core.

One of the things I found so remarkable about this book was Hunt’s ability to capture all the melancholy and dread of the depressive state through her clever use of the black dog in her narrative. When Black Pat first arrives, he negotiates with Esther over whether or not she’ll let him stay, finally sliding in when her defences are down. This is symbolically accurate from the accounts of depression I’ve read. Later in the story, Esther and Churchill speak about the menace of the black dog being akin to warfare, in which the depressive person must staunchly maintain his defenses from the ceaseless attack of Black Pat. It was curious that Black Pat’s strategy differed between his victims, and I grew to recognize that in his initial attack of Esther, he was turning on the charm and hoping to wiggle in under her radar. Later things would be different, as they were with Churchill. Once the dog was granted admittance for the first time, he was free to take over and became horribly abusive and cloying.

Black Pat is the embodiment of depression to a T. Capable of being darkly humorous in his initial attack, he’s portrayed here as obstinate, vulgar and persistent, even as he is uncharacteristically charming and self-aware. Though Churchill has faced Black Pat many times before and knows his opponent, Esther is completely unaware of the danger in letting him linger and is surprised to discover just who her boarder really is. In both cases, the dog makes both a physical and mental nuisance of himself, sometimes playful and other times ominous. He regards his role in the lives he usurps as lamentable but necessary and often claims his existence and persistence is not within his control, believing that he is summoned by affinity. Black Pat is inventive and wily while also being profound and deep. He can be intolerably rude, coarse and undignified, but in him resides a kernel of remorse that he wishes wasn’t there. Though he is dogged (no pun intended) and charming at times, he’s also fierce and dangerously destructive.

Though I’ve described the bleaker aspects of this book, it also was rather funny, which was an unexpected surprise. The relationship between Esther and her boss was a source of many snickering laughs, as were some of the conversations and situations that arose with Black Pat. The book melded both profundity and laughter in a perfect package that at times delighted and often made me ponder depression in a way I hadn’t before. The narrative was also filled with some unique and well-developed characters, who rounded out the story very nicely and gave a lot of heft to what may have otherwise become a thin farce of a narrative. It’s not often that I laugh aloud at a book, but I did so here, which sort of startled me because one wouldn’t expect to find this particular topic amusing.

I was also struck by the surprising outcome of the story, for even as I loathed Black Pat, I grew to appreciate him in some ways despite my reluctance. I ended up feeling enormously sorry for him in one sense, and in another I was glad to see him in such reduced circumstances. It was a curiously odd feeling to hate and yet admire a creature so repulsive and all-consuming, but I have to honestly admit that I did. Black Pat was a villain whom I came to care about, though I knew he was rotten to the core. I think part of this had to do with his ability to sympathize with his victims and his need to warn them of his trickery. This made him seem almost a victim of his own circumstances and made me feel that there was more to him than I had first suspected. He was altogether perplexing, in both good and bad ways, and not a character whom I will likely forget.

I found this book to be utterly amazing and superbly crafted. The originality of the material coupled with characters that were believable and well-rounded made this a book that I would recommend to a host of readers. In addition to its very nuanced story, the humor of the tale is something I think a lot of readers will find unexpectedly welcome and winning. If you’re on the fence about this book, I would encourage you to take a chance and see what all of the fuss is about. It was an excellent read. Highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

20 comments:

TheBookGirl said...

Oh yes, I'm so glad you liked this one. I thought it was so unique. I don't think i've read anything quite like it before. The way she embodies the physicality of depression in the form of Pat, the way he insinuates himself, and then nearly smothers Esther...remarkable.

Steph said...

I'm so glad you liked this one! It's a strange little novel, but I thought it was very powerful and such a clever look at depression. I really appreciated that it wasn't all serious and maudlin, because I think that's an easy enough aspect of the disease to capture, but to infuse the narrative with some levity takes true skill.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Wow! I've seen this all over the place but this is the first time I've gotten around to reading a review. I thought it was about something totally different! i'm really glad you liked it; I might have to go pick it up at lunch. I ALMOST bought it, yesterday, on my Borders closing spree.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

As Steph wrote, this seems like such a clever way to write about depression. I'm glad to hear it also has laugh out loud moments!

Beth Hoffman said...

What a wonderful review ... you hooked me! I've been thinking about reading this, and you just convinced me to add it to my list right away. Thanks!

Jenny said...

This sounds so interesting and so well done!! The way the dog embodies depression (ok, as I was typing that I just saw the first commenter used the same phrasing, I promise I wasn't copying, LOL) is definitely intruiging.

And.. are you sure that was no pun intended..? ;)

bermudaonion said...

I actually think this is the first review I've seen of this book and you've made it sound like a book I would adore!!

Vasilly said...

I have never heard of this book before. As someone who has suffered from depression in the past, this sounds like a great little read. I love your review of this. I'm adding to my tbr list.

Jenners said...

I was on the fence about this but your review pushed me over....to the Read It side! Well done.

Trisha said...

I have an inability to read books which personify dogs (or cats for that matter or pets in general really). I don't know why, but it is a block I can't remove.

softdrink said...

I didn't realize it had some humor to it...I was almost afraid to pick it up for fear it would be really dark.

Suko said...

Fabulous review! This book sounds fascinating--finding some "LOL" humor in the subject of depression makes it more tolerable, more "approachable", I suppose. I remember seeing the cover of this book and wondering about the dog. Glad you enjoyed this one! I probably would as well. :)

Darlene said...

I've noticed this book around a bit and wondered if I'd like. It definitely sounds intriguing to me.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

I have not heard of this one, but how utterly fascinating! What a way to describe depression and the way it can manifest itself in a person's life...i must get me a copy! Thanks for sharing this book and for the recommendation!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I was eying this book at the library, but told myself I had no business borrowing it at this time. I think I talked myself out of a great book:(

Nice review Heather....it does sound good.

Aarti said...

Oh, so glad you enjoyed this one! I have heard so much about it but haven't read any reviews on it thus far. I like the idea of depression being a breathing being that must be fought.

Audra said...

I can't wait to read this -- I've requested a copy from the library. Such a brilliant idea and I've heard good things -- your review has me especially excited now! (And I just love the cover.)

Marg said...

The idea of the dog being representative of depression and moving into their lives sounded like an interesting idea from the first time I heard of it. I definitely need to add it to my TBR pile I think.

Amy said...

This is a terrific review! I'm so glad you liked this book. I was also surprised, and pleased, by the humor. It took a little longer for me to grasp the bleak and grim aspect of depression being caused by Black Pat. But in his second or third visit with Churchill I felt it. I do wish there was another scene or two with Esther and Churchill because I enjoyed the one so much.
I loved Esther and want to know what happens with her! lol

Geosi said...

I do love books with believable characters and this seems like one I would go in for. Thanks for the wonderful review.

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