This is the book that has been on my TBR list the longest. I still remember seeing it at Kinokuniya in the New Release section in 2010 and immediately writing it down and it’s only now that I’ve been able to get my hands on it. And I don’t know if it’s because I waited so long for it, but I was a little disappointed by it. Not because it was written badly, mind you. But because it didn’t really deliver on what it promised and that was a piece of work of crushing emotional depth and insight.
The plot spans over six days and is about the interactions of Winston Churchill and an original character, Esther Hammerhans, and their ties to Mr Chartwell, a large black dog. And for those of you familiar with mental illness analogies, then you will know that Mr Chartwell (who’s other alias is Black Pat) is also a physical manifestation of depression.
This is my kind of book. It’s got ties to magical realism, the whole story is one giant analogy, there’s a thousand recognitions awarded to this story; this book was made to be loved by me. This is why I kept it on my TBR list for six years. But despite being about depression, I couldn’t seem to muster up any greater emotion other than ‘aww, that’s sad’. I couldn’t feel moved even when the impact of depression was described in all its seductive and destructive powers, the fact that it seems ingrained into the personalities of some and will only appear fleetingly in others, and why some can throw off its suffocating hold and others succumb.
There were beautiful dialogues that made me appreciate the thought and ingenuity that went behind this story, but for some reason, couldn’t move me beyond the feeling of mild compassion, instead of the misery I wanted to be hit with. For example, read below how Hunt tries to describe the seductive hold Mr Chartwell tries to exert over Esther:
That old Romeo, what he said next was shameless. He said it slowly and full of clues. ‘If you let me love you it will be the longest love of your life.’
‘You love me?’ Esther was shocked to her own voice, immediately doubting she had heard him right. As a grotesque experiment she said, ‘Black Pat, you don’t love me.’
The answer was brazen: ‘Oh yes I do.’
‘I’m not sure it is love.’ She was shy talking like this. A shy little explanation came. ‘Because I’ve had love and I remember how it was.’
‘Double it,’ said Black Pat. ‘Double it, double it. You’ve got no idea…It’s a love with a capacity you have no concept of.’ Black Pat said with a hot voice, ‘It’s a love that would endure beyond the precincts of your days with a ferocity you can’t hope to equal.’
‘Boundless, endless, friendless ferocity.’
‘No,’ Esther said after a speechless period, her eyes dark holes. ‘That’s not love, it’s possession. It’s what you did to Michael, you possessed him.’
Beautiful and haunting. But I still couldn’t feel anything.
There were moments where I saw glimpses of potential emotional wreckage when Hunt wrote up insightful exchanges. My heart jumped a little when I read this exchange between Mr Chartwell and Esther after they agree that Mr Chartwell will be Esther’s lodger:
‘And you pay for what you get,’ said Black Pat. He put his weight on one foreleg.
‘I think it’s you get what you pay for,’ said Esther.
‘Sure,’ said Black Pat. ‘It can be that way too.’ His smile was a slight one. ‘But not in my experience.’
But fundamentally, there was nothing that imprinted on me and I think it due to two reasons. Firstly, as the main character, Mr Chartwell was able to display the toxic charisma of depression but his behaviour felt like a bit too much like a textbook description of depression; there was no real emotional weight behind the words portraying his actions. The plot that was being set was also moving at a snail pace, so it didn’t give Hunt enough opportunities to really showcase what Mr Chartwell was capable of, there was just a lot of references to the damage previously inflicted on Churchill in his earlier days. This meant that everytime Mr Chartwell showed up, I wasn’t very interested.
I did enjoy the attempts to be as historically accurate as possible for example, Churchill did famously suffer from depression and would make numerous references to fighting the “black dog” in his private diaries and speeches. Mr Chartwell also plays around with this famous retort with Churchill:
‘You’re drunk!’ Churchill broadcast to the room, watching from over the rim.
‘And you’re naked,’ Black Pat shouted through towels, trying to remember the quote. ‘But in the morning I will be sober.’
Writing about depression is tricky because despite its universal impact of making people feel like they’re drowning, it’s so difficult to depict an experience that everyone can agree on. The concept is refreshing and witty but not poignant, but if your topic choice is about one of the most draining mental illnesses, then it is bit of a waste.