Rebecca Hunt’s debut novel is one that holds a weird distinction for me: It is a story that repels and compels at the same time. Mr. Chartwell is Rebecca Hunt’s moniker for what Winston Churchill called his “Black Dog,” the beast of his long bout with depression.
Ms. Hunt’s protagonist is Esther Mannerhans, a librarian at the House of Commons and an endearing young widow who has still not recovered from her husband’s death two years earlier. The linking of Esther’s deep grief and Churchill’s depression through the mysterious Mr. Chartwell is phantasmagorical and mesmerizing. We first meet Mr. Chartwell as he arrives at Esther’s door in answer to her ad for a boarder: “Mr. Chartwell’s black lips carved a cordial smile. ‘Mrs. Esther Hammerhans?’ He extended a paw the size of a turnip. ‘Hello, I’ve come about the room.” Ms. Hunt’s imaginative handling of both characters (Mannerhans and Churchill) and the events that draw them together through Mr. Chartwell is one neat literary trick.
What works well in this novel is it brevity in the face of such a serious topic, and I think it gutsy of Ms. Hunt to suggest that depression may be as seductive as anything Madison Avenue could dream up. Mr. Chartwell is a challenging but deeply worthwhile read and I, for one, look forward to Hunt’s next novel.