On the Bookseller’s Bookshelf: Mr. ChartwellNovember 16, 2011
Mr. Chartwell is the story of a human-sized, talking black dog that moves in with a polite English librarian, destroying her sheets and garden and teapots. The dog’s name is Mr. Chartwell — or, as he prefers to be called by “friends,” Black Pat. To make things even weirder, Black Pat also has a job. His occupation? To visit and torment Winston Churchill. Only the librarian and Churchill can see Black Pat, but his effects are apparent to everyone.
Although this story is hardly realistic, it’s not nonsense — it’s metaphor. Churchill openly struggled with depression, which he referred to as a “black dog” that followed him through life.
Author Rebecca Hunt’s tone is light and conversational, with true-to-life observations and incredibly witty dialogue. But the real brilliance of the book is how it helps us examine depression from different angles in order to explore its effects.
To Churchill, the dog is an enemy. It sits on Churchill’s chest so he can’t move out of bed, or stands at his feet grinding rocks in his mouth to distract him. Churchill wants Black Pat to leave him and does everything in his power to escape, but he knows that the dog will probably always return. On the other hand, our librarian, though annoyed by Black Pat, also sees him as a kind of pet. He irritates her, but he also gives her some comfort and companionship. The parallels to how depression effects people so differently are fairly obvious, but the unusual perspective Hunt takes on describing them makes a familiar truth more poignant.
I’m really blown away by how well Hunt handled her material, deftly exploring a difficult topic in an unusual way without being cheesy or overly dramatic. From beginning to end, she manages to keep the story hopeful without offering trite solutions or false promises to a very real problem. All that, and she keeps her characters relatable and even funny.