By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 11:19 PM
"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, " Mr. Chartwell " 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:
"Churchill's legs were weighed down intolerably. Black Pat draped over his knees and thighs. The hot, bristly torso was contorted in a way that wasn't comfortable for either of them, the animal stench almost physical at such a close range. Black Pat would not be roused. He wasn't asleep; he was in a state of sullen hypnosis, silently waiting. Churchill couldn't shake him off, the dog heavier than he could bodily move. He was trapped underneath, imprisoned in a maroon armchair."
In the book's other setting, we meet a young librarian named Esther, whose husband died two years ago. Surely it's time to move on, she thinks, and so she decides to rent out his den. The only one who answers her ad, though, is a slovenly black dog. That talks. Hunt handles this absurd encounter just right, in the spirit of Jose Saramago. Esther feels alarmed but also too polite to say anything rude to a guest, even a canine guest.
And how brilliantly Hunt portrays Black Pat. Although he seems generous and accommodating, even vaguely comforting to a grieving young widow, there's something menacing about him: those powerful haunches and massive jaws. Esther realizes she's being naive to let this grotesque figure into her home - the slobber, the black hair, the paw prints everywhere - but Black Pat can be so flirtatious with his joking hostility. "Could I come in there with you?" he asks the first night outside her bedroom door, whining like a puppy. "If you let me love you it will be the longest love of your life. . . . All you have to do is consent."
This novel really shouldn't work. I know it sounds maudlin, even obscenely silly, a grown-up version of Eeyore who encourages people to slit their wrists and swallow pills. But Hunt maintains the story's poignancy on a razor's edge, balancing the light romantic comedy involving Esther and her friends at the library with the tragedy of her stoic grief at home. And as an allegory of depression, "Mr. Chartwell" is remarkably illuminating. While Black Pat grinds away on Churchill's soul and tries his hardest to insinuate himself into Esther's life, the suspense gains traction; it's a strange kind of psychological thriller about psychology itself. "The dog's genius," Hunt writes, "was to make orphans of hope and brotherhood." Poor Churchill seems a lost cause, so leashed to the animal that he'll never escape, no matter how valiantly he fights on, but could he help a lonely young widow in the House of Commons library?
It simplifies matters, of course, that this story takes place before antidepressants were so commonly prescribed (according to one recent estimate, Americans spend $86 billion a year on antidepressant medication), but in another way "Mr. Chartwell" is surprisingly relevant to an age more and more open to the methods of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Churchill's rousing advice to a fellow sufferer is just the kind of self-conscious mental treatment that many people are turning to as the bright promises of psychotropics dim: "You must hurl yourself into opposition, for you are at war," he says. "Do not consent to the descent."
There's a genuine sweetness to this novel that a more sophisticated writer wouldn't have had the courage to allow. But Hunt knows the black dog has fangs, too, and that's what makes "Mr. Chartwell" so valuable. If the old beast is on your back or a spouse's or a friend's, a few hours with this beguiling novel might not be a bad way to shoo it away for a spell - or maybe longer.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor. He reviews books every Wednesday.
By Rebecca Hunt
Dial. 242 pp. $24