Saturday, 13 August 2011

Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Esther Hammerhans, a library clerk at the House of Commons in 1964, is looking for a lodger.  The lodger who arrives to rent her box room is surprising: he is Mr Chartwell, a huge, shaggy and smelly black dog.  For a dog, he has some surprising habits, including talking, walking on his hind legs, and having some sort of job that brings him to Esther's part of London.  That job has to do, tangentially, with Esther's job.  Mr Chartwell is Winston Churchill's famous 'black dog', a reification of his metaphor for the periods of depression, and needs to be near Westminster to make sure he is present during the last days of Churchill's political career.  Esther has her own relationship with depression, and the drama of the book turns on whether she will succumb to Mr Chartwell's charms.

This book is incredibly delicately balanced.  It could so easily veer off into twee whimsy or overdramatic horror, but Rebecca Hunt has built up her narrative with great care, balancing the comic and the sinister to create recognisable accounts of living with, and struggling against, the realities of life with depression.  Nowhere is this care more evident than in the characterisation of Mr Chartwell himself: he combines human characteristics of humour, insight, and cunning, with a manifest doggishness, leaving vast clumps of hair everywhere and destroying the fabric of Esther's home.  Charismatic, amusing and persistent, it becomes increasingly easy to understand why Churchill has continued to tolerate him.

Despite its underlying sombre theme, the book is also very funny.  I was particularly amused by the appallingly rude Head of the House of Commons Library, John Dennis-John, who utterly fails to intimidate his staff, even when he suggests that a glimpsed bra-strap makes a woman look like the Whore of Babylon, and by the cheerful, inventive Corkbowl, a new recruit to the library.  Mr Chartwell singing to himself "a bone in the fridge may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend" has given me a permanent earworm.  Churchill and his wife Clementine get some excellent lines, and Esther's stubborn evasiveness and perplexed responses to an increasingly strange world have their own gentle humour.  This novel blends the fantastic expertly with the everyday, and is a stimulating and ultimately inspiring read.

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