Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mr. Chartwell

Mr. Chartwell is Rebecca Hunt's first novel and it is an intriguing mix of historical fiction and psychological fiction, of charm and melancholy, of humor and sadness. Sir Winston Churchill called his depression a "black dog". Mr. Chartwell, a huge black dog able to walk on his hind legs, rents a room from Esther Hammerhans, a young library clerk in the House of Commons library.

As Mr. Chartwell comes to know Esther he becomes Black Pat to her. He converses with Esther about complex subjects in an entirely human way, but, he also shows many of the traits of a dog.

Black Pat can be a charming companion for Esther, talking with her at length, sharing gin and tonic which he drinks from a large watering can, while she uses the more conventional glass. When Mr. Chartwell moves into Esther's room to let he retrieves his luggage, a box hidden in the bushes and his "possessions were fantastically odd: a clump of brown fur, one side crusted with blood; a rotting log; a hoof from a large deer...." At another time, when Esther and Black Pat are talking through the closed door to Esther's room, she asks him, "'Are you eating something?' 'I am not.' said Black Pat, filing his teeth on a sheep's pelvis he had rescued from a ditch." In one memorable scene, Black Pat prepares a barbecue surprise for Esther. You will have to read the book to learn of the surprise for yourself.

The black dog is not such a charming companion for Churchill, who is also a character in this novel. The story takes place over the six days leading up to and ending with Churchill's retirement from Parliament and from public life. Churchill struggles with his memories and with his depression, but he also writes a memorable farewell speech, with the help of Esther.

Additional interesting characters in the novel are Esther's friends, the married couple Beth and Big Oliver, Esther's new friend and possible love interest Mark Corkbowl, and the presence in the story of Esther's husband, Michael, who is no longer with her.

Rebecca Hunt succeeds on many levels in her first novel. In addition to an unusual dog as a main character, there are interconnected stories of love and of friendship - Churchill and Clementine, Esther and her colleagues at the library. There is much that is dark in this novel, but, it is also a story showing how humor, caring, and friendship can provide comfort and strength, even in the most difficult times.

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