Monday, March 21, 2011

Dog days

I find myself reading less and less fiction these days, but I picked up Rebecca Hunt's debut novel, Mr. Chartwell, because it's about depression. And it has Winston Churchill in it, that toddler-faced, moribund quipster, whom I quite like.

The novel's premise is saved from preciousness by Hunt's punny, smart writing - even the titular character is a pun-made-flesh, Mr. Churchill's 'black dog' of depression come to life.

The young widow Esther Hammerhans places an ad in the paper for her spare bedroom, and a six-foot-tall, talking black dog turns up to rent it. Esther, rather understandably nonplussed, finds herself oddly drawn to Mr. Chartwell, and agrees to let him stay, although he promptly begins getting into the sort of trouble one would expect from a pro-wrestler-sized dog, from shredding the furniture to filling Esther's backyard with chewed birds.

Mr. Chartwell divides his time between tormenting Churchill, who is facing the lonely, empty shore of retirement and finding himself increasingly unable to keep the dog at bay, and courting Esther, who finds him alternately attractive and repellant.

Mr. Chartwell is an oddly endearing yet frightening character, with his doggish earnestness and subtle corrosiveness. I've always thought of my depression as resembling a metal yoke-like thing I saw in a display of torture instruments a few years ago - the weight is weirdly tangible, like something shoving down on your shoulders all the time. It's easy to see how the deadly companionability of Mr. Chartwell can be attractive. After all, how many other things can you say will never leave you?

Mr. Chartwell's conclusion is unsatisfying, as Esther banishes the black dog by simply taking her best friend's advice to find another boyfriend, which suggests that her depression is more circumstantial than Churchill's, whose family had a long history of battling with it (his daughter Diana committed suicide at 54, and his father and mother were infamously distant parents). Esther's encounter with Churchill also seems rather forced and unnecessary, but the scenes between Chartwell and Churchill's long-suffering wife Clementine ring with genuine grief.

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