Review: Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Title: Mr. Chartwell
Author: Rebecca Hunt
Pages: 256
Genre: Fiction
Release Date: February 22, 2011
Publisher: Random house
Source: Personal Copy

During his lifetime, British politician Sir Winston Churchill often referred to the depression he suffered as the "black dog." In her clever debut novel, Rebecca Hunt personifies the black dog as a monstrous black Labrador Retriever who can speak and walk on his hind legs. The story takes place in England over a 5 day period during the month of July in 1964. In Kent, Churchill is preparing to retire from Parliament while in London Mr. Chartwell, or Black Pat as he likes to be called, answers an ad for a boarder placed by lonely widow Ester Hammerhans. These two seemingly unrelated people now must both deal with this dark menacing stronghold on their lives.

While that summary is entirely inadequate, I think revealing much more would ruin this bizarre little book. Mr. Chartwell provides an insightful look at how depression can swiftly interrupt life and weigh someone down, draining his or her energy and leaving a sense of despair. However, I am torn as to whether I truly liked the story or not. On the one hand, the story is imaginative and creepy at the same time, but on the other hand there were too many issues that made it obvious that this was a debut novel. Hunt creates wonderful imagery and descriptions, especially of Black Pat, but I found the rest of her prose to be a little slow with little to compel me to turn the page. The chapter structures were quite repetitive with the beginning paragraph or two always being a explanation of the current setting. I wish that the author would have played around with the structure a little more, especially considering that the topic is more whimsical than standard.

One positive quibble I had with Mr. Chartwell was the length. I felt that there was so much more Hunt could have done with the story without being excessive. The characters of Churchill and Ester weren't as fleshed out as necessary for me to really care about or understand them. The focus of the story was very much on Black Pat, who is quite a complex character. At times funny and intelligent, he can quickly turn to being cruel, devious, and egocentric. The descriptions of Black Pat are where Hunt's use of imagery really shines through.
He did look similar to a Labrador, with the vast barrelled chest and stocky limbs built to move over rough and difficult terrain, but a heavier set and strictly hideous Labrador. There was nothing decorative about him. His short black fur was dense and water resistant, his broad face split by a vulgar mouth. The monstrous grey tongue dangled, droplets of saliva spilling onto the floor.
While Ester and Churchill didn't interact much, they both served to highlight two ends of the spectrum. Churchill's story focuses on the genetic angle of the disease, and he comes across as more resigned as he's lived with Black Pat most of his life. Ester, a widow struggling with the two year anniversary of her husband's suicide, is new to the feelings of sadness and despair and doesn't quite know how to react.

Overall, I did enjoy the story and liked what the author was trying to accomplish. This was an innovative literary treatment of a disease that affects millions of people. Aside from the debut novel issues, this quick and to-the-point story was definitely one of the more original reads I've encountered this year. If you're looking for something a little puzzling and different, then I would look into Mr. Chartwell.


  1. I got this on audio book and listened to the first few chapters -- but I just can't commit to audiobooks so gave up -- but the beginning hooked me with the metaphor of Black Pat. It seems like such an intriguing book -- glad you enjoyed it as you did. I'm reading Nancy Rappaport's memoir about her mother's suicide, which has depression on my mind at the moment. (Which sounds more miserable than I mean.)

  2. Interesting book, what an odd way of portraying depression.

  3. I think I liked this one a bit more then you did, but I can totally see your point about the author not taking risks. I thought it was a terribly ingenious story, and very unique, and though I really liked Black Pat, I also sort of hated him, you know? This was a very insightful review, and I appreciated reading another opinion of the book. Thanks!


Post a Comment