“Mr. Chartwell” arrives with the mark of the beast. Yes, it’s another animal novel. Worse, another talking-animal novel. Worse still, another novel with animals talking about depression. But wait — put your Prozac down for a moment. This first novel by a 30-year-old British artist named Rebecca Hunt is a spirited tonic, maybe just the thing to rebalance your humors.
Set in the summer of 1964, “
” depicts the week leading up to Winston Churchill’s retirement from Parliament. A slim, quirky novel would seem a cramped space for the valorous 20th-century statesman, but that’s hardly this story’s boldest move. The second character we meet is “a massive thing”: a large, black dog.
Students of Churchill or psychology will recognize that apt metaphor. Like his father and several other ancestors, Churchill wrestled with bouts of depression, which he referred to wryly as “the black dog.” That phrase is so closely associated with the legendary prime minister that one assumes he coined it, but he probably got the term from his childhood nanny, and it shows up as a euphemism for melancholia all the way back to the
writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson
. Hunt’s bold innovation is to bring that “black dog” to furry life as an insistent, insidious and enervating presence, sometimes known as Black Pat and sometimes — taking the name of Churchill’s home — as Mr. Chartwell.
The shelf of layman’s books on depression is already heavy with great volumes. Sufferers have their favorites, but most would include “
An Unquiet Mind
,” by Kay Redfield Jamison; “The Noonday Demon,” by Andrew Solomon; and “Darkness Visible,” by William Styron. The founder of Elle magazine in England, Sally Brampton, recently borrowed Churchill’s phrase for her memoir, “Shoot the Damn Dog.” As a work of fantastical fiction, Hunt’s novel makes an odd member of this pack, and of course it’s not meant to help in the way those nonfiction books do, but it’s still a profoundly insightful story about our response to the magnetic hopelessness that pulls on so many of us.
Hunt is a careful miniaturist, capturing moods and places in just a few sentences. Her story’s brief chapters alternate between two settings. In one, we see the 89-year-old Churchill gruffly preparing to leave public life and confront all that dreadful free time. He drinks, he tries to paint, and he makes an effort to stay pleasant to his dear wife, Clementine. (Among other things, this is a beautiful portrayal of a long, loving marriage taxed by depression.) But in the privacy of his study, Churchill regards his impending retirement as a living death. “My work is over,” he thinks. “I don’t have future work to look to, something I’ve always relied on to carry me through — the promise that I will do better; that I will mend mistakes. . . . Not any longer. This time I am out of time. It is surely a savage thing to do to a man.”
This scene of despair is made all the more unsettling by Hunt’s personification of Churchill’s mental state, a description that will sound eerily familiar to anyone who’s wrestled with the black dog: