Friday 8 April 2011

You can bring your dog

Not often that I give posts Tori Amos song titles, but it was the first thing that popped into my head when I put Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt in front of me. I was lucky enough to meet Rebecca Hunt a couple of weeks ago at a Penguin bloggers/authors event. For a lovely write-up of the day, check out Sakura's post or Annabel's or David's or Hayley's. All of which makes me think perhaps I should have written something about it myself. Oops. I will say that, for someone who wrote a book about depression, Rebecca was hilarious. I hope the wine I'd drunk on an empty stomach didn't make me think *I* was too hilarious. Onto Mr. Chartwell...

The man in question is not, in fact, a man - but a dog. Winston Churchill famously referred to his depression as his 'black dog' - Hunt imagines what it would be like if Churchill had not been speaking metaphorically; what if there really was a black dog, visible only to those he afflicts? Mr. Chartwell (also known as Black Pat, although neither is his actual name - which is never revealed) is that dog.

It's 1964 and Churchill is 89 years old, and about to retire. Not far away, in Battersea, House of Commons librarian Esther Hammerhans has advertised for a lodger to live with her, and is awaiting his arrival. It won't surprise you to learn that the lodger in question turns out to be... Mr. Chartwell. He is incredibly tall (and stands upright), he speaks English perfectly, and more or less his only canine vice is a propensity to eat anything and everything, usually in a peculiarly disgusting, slobbery manner. Reluctantly, Esther lets him stay.

This might all sound a bit fey. The anthropomorphism of animals is usually rather whimsical, or at least diverting, but in Mr. Chartwell it's really something that we should come to terms with as quickly as possible, and then carry on. And there is certainly nothing fey about Mr. Chartwell. He is, if anything, menacing - but not aggressive or threatening, rather he is persistent. Whenever Churchill tells him to leave, it is acknowledged between them that Mr. Chartwell leaving is never really a possibility. He is an unwelcome companion, but a companion nevertheless.

Esther thought about Michael in here with this dog, trapped with him, already trapped when they first met. "And you're going to trap me too." She recalled the day he moved in, her gullibility. "This is an ambush."

"No, it's an affinity. I didn't initiate it." From behind the desk Black Pat said, "The magnet that keeps me here is the magnet which brought me here. We are twinned by the same orbit and I'm all yours, Esther, I'm all yours." He said hopefully, "Don't you like me even slightly?"
Michael, by the way, is Esther's late husband. His story slowly unwinds through the novel, as pieces are filled in, so I shan't spoil it for you here.

Such are the bare bones of the narrative, and it is a simple story really - with an innovative central idea which permits simplicity. Indeed, to overcomplicate the novel would have been a big mistake. As it was, I could have done with less of Esther's colleague Beth and Beth's husband Big Oliver. They were something of a distraction.

What Hunt has done brilliantly, and originally, is capture the claustrophobia of depression. The idea of a hot, heavy, relentless dog lying across one's body might not be medically accurate, but it certainly conjures up an idea of what living with depression might be like. And yet, Mr. Chartwell is not a distressing novel. There is a lot of humour flowing through it, especially from Mr. Chartwell himself - who is not a wholly repugnant character by any means. Relentless, yes, but also somehow seductive. Not in a romantic way, of course, but through his dogged (no pun intended) charisma.

I don't know anything about Churchill, really, beyond what everyone grows up knowing. I don't know whether or not his character and his dialogue are written convincingly - other people will be able to say, perhaps. I'm not sure it really matters. Churchill is useful as the originator of the 'black dog' expression, but his character could have been anyone who experienced both success and depression. Even without the 'hook' of Churchill, Hunt has written a strikingly original debut novel, and I'm looking forward to seeing what could possibly come next. And Rebecca, if you're reading, I still want the chandelier we were arguing over.

Never let it be said, gentle readers, that I do not think of you. There was a free-for-all at Penguin's table of free books, but (a) I had already asked lovely Lija for a copy of Mr. Chartwell, and (b) there seemed to be lots of spare copies - so I grabbed one to offer up as a giveaway copy. So, as a reward for reading this far, simply pop your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy (open worldwide) - actually, let's make it a little bit more exciting. I want to know the name (and species) of your first pet - if you've never had one, then what would you call one. Get commenting...


  1. A very interesting review and thank you for the generous giveaway!
    Why is the dog called Chartwell - did the author name it after Churchill's home or did Churchill?
    My first companion animal was called Lasi and I must have been about 4 years old when she came to us as a cute, curly-haired pup. She turned into a largely black alsation with light tan underbits. She grew up with me, watched over me, played with me and eventually saw me go off to my first job. She was a wonderful, kind and fantastic friend.

  2. Thank you for the post which was very interesting reading. Also, for the offer - my first pet was Frankie a daschund. Will never ever forget him.

  3. Hey Simon from dusty windy West Texas. V generous of you to offer a copy and to enter the drawing, here is my pet stuff: guinea pig, ginger, pregnant (but of course we didn't know that at the time), and called Pickles. Very sweet little thing.

    Thanks. Happy Friday!

  4. Sounds like an interesting topic for a debut novel. Don't put my name in the hat because I'm trying to make my TBR shelf shrink right now, but I couldn't resist the question. First pet: a beagle named Charlie. :)

  5. Very kind of you, yes I'd like to enter the pot.

  6. Thanks for the interesting review & generous offer! Pls include me in the draw. My first pet was a black cocker spaniel mix, with a patch of white on her chest. Name was Alice. Had her when I was four and grew up with me till I was twenty. It was devastating to see her go...

  7. Yes please, I like the sound of this book. My first pet was a black dog -- actually an unclipped poodle -- called Alfred.

  8. Ooh, I've been keen to get a copy of this (if I don't win, I might have to see if you'll lend me yours :-p - in fact if you're prepared to loan, then don't enter me for the draw!). I've never had a pet so I have no idea what I'd call one - it would depend on what it was, surely?! You couldn't call a goldfish Fluffy - well, you could...

  9. great review!
    My first pet was a lovely Guinea-Pig called Pipsqueak.

  10. This book sounds great!

    My first pet was a goldfish named, uncreatively (please forgive me, because I was about 5) Goldy. She was a very obese fish.

  11. This book has finally arrived at my library so I have my name in for it there. Best of luck to those adding their name to your draw though! By the way, our first pet was a chihuahua named Ricky...for Ricky Ricardo from The Lucille Ball Show *snort*!

  12. Ah, Simon, thank you!
    My first pet was a black cocker spaniel named "Bob." He shared the house with a blue parakeet named "Plato," until, one day, Plato flew out of his cage for the first time ever. Old and immovable Bob took one look from where he was lying on the floor, stood up, and caught Plato in his teeth. End of Plato. After tearful little girls picked Plato up off the floor, Bob went back to sleep, and lived many years longer, deaf, a little lame, and still beloved, despite his one, uncharacteristic moment of acting like a spaniel: he'd found the bird and brought it to his owners. How could we fault him>
    Sending warm thoughts from Massachusetts, where we still have snow on the ground.
    --- Sally

  13. Interesting review Simon - you've really made me want to read it.

    My first pet was Sam - a mongrel dog, part spaniel, part collie and part goodness knows what else.

    And I am sure that wine or no wine you were genuinely hilarious

  14. I thought it was a really wonderful book. The idea is so creative that frankly I would have given her a book deal on that alone- but I agree it's her ability to convey depression and her characterisation generally that is really the start of the book once you get over the original surprise of the speaking dog

  15. This is not the type of book I would normally try but I've read so many good reviews that I can't resist. My first pet was a mixed breed dog named Skipper. He was very gentle and loving with my brother and me but very protective when others came too close.

  16. This book has been on my TBR list for a while. My first pet was a budgie called Peter.

  17. Sounds a fascinating book - I'll look out for it. It made me think - for no direct reason except maybe the appealing yet sinister anthropomorphic animal - of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, a book which seems to inspire strong reactions and which you never get back if you lend a copy.

    First pet - a cat, inherited with its name which was Tigger, but she was a long-haired and elegant Birman, not a tabby.

  18. The English + mental disorders + some sort of Jungian/psychoanalytic metaphor -> I think I'm interested in this book!

    @Cristina I agree, Lasi sounds like she was wonderful.

    When I was seven or eight, my older sister's friend gave me a chick she won in our school's fair. I named it Chickee. I couldn't determine whether Chickee was male or female so I figured when Chickee grew up, I'll just rename it either Henny or Rooster. Sadly, I never got to rename Chickee. I forgot to bring Chickee in during a storm and when it finally let up, I couldn't find Chickee. My mom said that maybe a rat or a snake ate Chickee during the storm. We live in a tropical country, and our house is by a small creek that used to be filled with rats and snakes.

  19. The cover is pretty cool. I like the review.

  20. I had not heard of this book before reading your review, and it sounds intriguing! It's also been fun reading about all the commenters' first pets. Mine was a little white rabbit - named either Whiskers or Buttons, I forget which. As I recall (I was probably about 6 years old) Whiskers/Buttons only lived for a week or so and then we got a grey bunny, named Buttons/Whiskers, who was around for a few years.

  21. The book sounds really interesting. My first pet was a brown & white cocker spaniel called Terry. He was run over & I was inconsolable for quite a time.

  22. Yes. I am entering this. I would like to be having the prize. My pet was Whiskers and it is a cat.

  23. I forgot to tell you I liked this book :) It was a fantastic idea, and well executed.
    I also thought personifying depression brought some interesting points through - like how Mr Chartwell wants to tempt you away from others, draw you in and have you all to himself. Interesting to see him portrayed sometimes as a companion, and even someone you can get fond of having around. I don't really know what real depression is like but from what I hear, these are quite accurate reflections.

    I won't enter your draw but I just wanted to add my solidarity for Goldy the Goldfish. Goldy was, I think, that goldfish whose life I saved with my first word. Gilbert's the one I remember though. Good old Gilbert, why did he take his own life? WHY?!

  24. I hope I'm not too late for the giveaway, as this book sounds fascinating!

    My first pet, though he was really a family pet, was Rayner, a black and white Jack Russell. We weren't aupposed to have him, as my mother is allergic to animal hair, but apparently my father just turned up with him one day, passed on by a friend who was leaving the country. His most memorable act was to eat the next door neighbours' hamster, the day we moved in to the house, when each of my parents thought he was with the other.

    Rayner was part of life until I was about eight, and then he was given to my Granny, as Grandpa and their dog had both just died. And a year or two later, Rayner died, while we were away on holiday, which made it worse for some reason.

  25. Always enjoy your reviews. My first pet was a standard poodle called Gypsy. My father bought her for my mom when I was born!!

  26. Hmm, depression as a big black dog. Intriguing. We didn't really have pets growing up since my brothers are allergic. At one point one of my brothers got a fish and named him Flipper.

  27. No need to count me in on the giveaway, but thank you very much for reminding me that I need to announce several of my recent giveaway winners, including some copies of this marvellous book which I also really, really enjoyed.

    Very jealous of your meeting the author... and I want to hear more about this chandelier!!!!


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