The book shoves the reader into the lives of two main characters, Sir Winston Churchill and Esther Hammerhans. It’s a book with chilling insight into depression, something which Churchill was dogged by his whole life. At a pivotal moment in the novel, when Esther meets Sir Winston, Churchill ponders:
But something about Esther disturbed him. Hello, what’s this? There was a quality to her…Yes, a strange energy about her, a dying star in the sky of her face.
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, is a novel giving face to the illness that plagued the historical character of Sir Winston, and the fictional character of Esther Hammerhans. The protagonist is depression, or as Churchill was known to call it, his “black-dog”. Black Pat is an ugly character, who intrudes on both Sir Winston and Esther. Black Pat follows them around and whispers dark, untrue things about them, or slobbers on their clothes, or sheds on their beds. Black Pat ruins their concentration, drinks their alcohol and becomes an itch they can’t scratch.
Set the days prior to Sir Winston Churchill’s retirement from politics, Sir Winston feels the presence of Black Pat almost constantly. He mourns the loss of his career and his busy-ness. He is sorrowed by the quietening of old age. At the end of his career (he’s 89!) rather than reflect on his mistakes and achievements, we find him reflecting on the effect that mental illness had on his life. In one of the most beautiful lines of the book, Winston says to Black Pat:
You are a dark star in the constellation which forms me. And to fight against you is to try and fight the stars in the eternal firmament.
Churchill has known the darkness of Black Pat his entire life and he suffers for it. His character’s resolution seems no more than resignation, until Churchill meets Esther.
Esther Hammerhans is mourning the two -year loss of her husband. She feels alone until Black Pat knocks on her door. Black Pat, a man-sized dog, his talk fills up her empty emotional life with both disgust and pity at the same time. She allows him to board with her because she feels so alone. The book is playful with this relationship, and the reader is struck by absurdity of a grown women renting out a room to a talking dog. As Esther learns who Black Pat represents in her life, she also learns truths about her husband and his death that are essential to finally letting him go.
The climax of the novel is the meeting between these two fated individuals. Esther’s boss at the House of Common’s Library nominates her to type out Churchill’s retirement speech. As mentioned in my first quote, Sir Winston recognizes Esther is suffering in the presence of Black Pat. Churchill urges her to push him away and be stronger. At the end of the novel, the reader cheers with Esther as she overcomes her bout of depression.
I found this book a clever and insightful illustration of depression. I would recommend it to anyone.
The issues of depression and myself cannot be isolated. And so I speak from experience when I say that this book was fairly realistic. Most significantly this novel, made me ponder a great deal about depression in history. Specifically the developments of modern psychiatry and medicine. I felt the most for Sir Winston, and for his dysthymia. It haunted him. I was impressed with his ability to survive.
Hunt also makes some very clear distinctions between Esther, who was suffering from a depressive episode, and Sir Winston, who had chronic depression. Esther was able to combat her depression with some changes, Churchill however had to come to terms with his illness and to live with it.
Hunt’s character development is brilliant. Black Pat is deplorable and disgusting, pathetic and alive.
Overall a refreshing read, and very impressive for a first novel. Although it dealt with a deep issue, the reader did not feel plagued by pages upon pages of introspection and remorse. The novel is only 211 pages, and I assure you they pass quickly. For anyone interested, at the bottom of Penguin UK’s write up about this book is a brief interview with the author.