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Old 2nd Feb 2012, 14:00   #1
Lucoid
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Default Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

Quote:
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill's mouth was pursed as if he had a slice of lemon hidden in there. Now eighty-nine, he often woke early. Grey dawn appeared in a crack between the curtains, amassing the strength to invade. Churchill prepared himself for the day ahead, his mind putting out analytical fingers and them coming at the day in a fist, ready for it.
So begins Mr Chartwell, Rebecca Hunt's debut novel set in the few days leading up to Churchill's official resignation from parliament in 1964. It's far from a straight fictionalised account of those July events, though, as Hunt's focus is instead on the spectre of depression that dogged* Churchill's life.

Inspired by Churchill's own description of his depressive episodes as the Black Dog, Hunt gives the illness a horrible, stinking, thinking, fascinating and disgusting character all of its own - a monstrously oversized labrador-like black dog, Mr Chartwell. We essentially view him in relation to Esther Hammerhans (an employee of the House of Commons library), whose story we really follow as she faces the second anniversary of her husband's death, her path crossing Churchill's along the way.

Although the Black Dog is Churchill's name for his depression, it seems it's really indefinable and not exactly easy to pin down - or, therefore, to control. Depression itself is never openly named, just referred to with sideways glances: not only does Churchill call it the Black Dog, the black dog calls himself first Mr Chartwell (after Churchill's house in Kent) as he starts to work his way into Esther's life as her new lodger, and then Black Patrick, though this is 'a definite lie':

Quote:
Esther said, "That's not your name."
"No, but it's a name I like. I certainly like it more than the Black Dog." He tested out Black Patrick and then the shorted Black Pat a few times to himself before saying, "You can call me Black Pat."
"What's your actual name?"
"I think we'll stick with Black Pat Chartwell for now," Mr Chartwell said firmly. It was clear that the discussion was finished. "Call me Black Pat."
By not revealing his actual name, Black Pat keeps all the control for himself and stops his relationships becoming too personal, stops himself from caring about those he's sent to torment.

Esther's name may also have some significance, as a nod to the central character (Esther Greenwood) in Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, charting her first major depressive episode from its beginnings to her recovery.

Anyway, that's enough of the influences and essay-type stuff. What did I think of it? I think Rebecca Hunt's background as a graduate in fine arts has brought something very refreshing to her use of language, a different way of looking at the world, perhaps. Inspired phrasing manages to avoid cliched description, with glorious passages that really thrilled me. This, for example, as Esther contemplates whether to let Black Pat stay as her lodger:

Quote:
The kitchen was impossibly empty without him. Outside the window a blackbird called with its brisk song. The broken silence healed back together. Soon shadows would grow down the walls as the evening became night, the night becoming late. Esther watched a sad film of herself enduring the dregs of the day, watched herself sitting here over a talentless meal, watched herself from behind as she scraped food into the bin. And here was the scene as she washed up in socked feet, one sock worked loose and bent under her foot. This sock would flap as she trudged around. Repulsively desperate, the whole scene.
Sadly, this wasn't kept up all the time, with a handful of sentences littered throughout that felt forced, unpolished and awkward - just a scattering but enough in this short novel to knock off the last half a star for me, or I'd definitely have awarded it five.

Other than that small but (for me) important niggle, Mr Chartwell is a massive pleasure to read, tripping along nicely with a slightly tongue-in-cheek feel and the restrained touch of the era it's set in. Delightful.

½


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Old 2nd Feb 2012, 21:22   #2
kjml
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

Hi Luc,
So, help me, is it mainly a fictionalized account of Churchill's life (and hard times) or is it primarily an account of his widow's hard times? It sounds like the latter --is that correct?
Am I right, the dog has a speaking part? Wow! (or should I say, bow-wow?) It might be an interesting book in either case, one way more imaginative than the other, perhaps, but good just the same. What do we know about Esther that makes her a worthy subject? Obviously, the war and politics overshadow all else about the great man and his life in the public mind. I can't even say I ever thought of him as married!
Anyway, it does sound interesting. Thanks.
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Old 3rd Feb 2012, 10:00   #3
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

Mr Chartwell is not about Churchill, or his wife, though both are important characters. It's about Esther, an employee at the House of Commons library, and her encounter with the Black Dog, who responds to her ad for a lodger. The story all takes place within a few days, leading up to big personal events for both Esther and Churchill (the second anniversary of Esther's husband's death, and Churchill's resignation). Sorry, I wasn't at all clear - the pressure of writing a review in my lunch hour was too much! I'll tidy it up later if I have the chance, so it's less disjointed.

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Am I right, the dog has a speaking part?
Int fiction brilliant? Thing is, though, he's not really a dog. He looks like a dog, though he's over 6 feet tall, and does doggish things, like chewing stuff, but he's actually a dark agent sent (by whom we do not know) to torment, to reinforce the depressive spiral, to make sure his 'clients' succumb to their destructive thoughts and feelings. He is, in essence a personification of depression (though of course I use the word 'personification' in its loosest sense, Black Pat being more dog-like than humanoid).
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Old 3rd Feb 2012, 14:13   #4
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

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I'll tidy it up later if I have the chance, so it's less disjointed.
Done. Hope it makes more sense now!

One other thing I perhaps didn't quite explain clearly, maybe used the wrong words, is that it's not so much a fictionalised account of a true story, as an imagining inspired by a handful of actual facts. Not having looked into it I can't be sure, but I think Esther is an invented character, and that all that is real is the historical accuracy of the dates in relation to Churchill's career, and the names, ages and home of Churchill and his family, that kind of detail.
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Old 4th Feb 2012, 2:59   #5
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

Hi Luc
and thanks for the clarification. This is beginning to sound like a lit'rary take on "The Outer Limits". It seems a kind of psychological primitivism, wherein the psychic conditions are personified as fully interactive characters in the lives of their hosts. Sci-fi genres do something similar, I guess, embodying social anxieties in hordes of the un-dead, body-snatchers, zombies and the like. Here we have the personalized demon bespoken for the private life of the public figure.
It is something I have to look at, I know, because it is becoming a marked trend in literature; this focus on particular psychological complexes and disorders as topics for fiction. Writers have always, of course, concerned themselves with how people see the world and "process" their experience of it. But until recently, they didn't seem to tailor the character to the demon, as though IT were the real agent. Something has changed in our way of seeing people's personality and character, and I think it is being reflected in the literature.

It occurs to me that this ('this' being the trend I am speaking of, not the book, per se) is an extension of the current theory of addiction. It is a commonplace among 'intervention' specialists that "the disease/addiction controls the personality and all its judgment"; therefore, any free Agency/responsibility is nil, and the addict must surrender his/her will to high powers ("doctors") who are better equipped to fight the demon. We are encouraged to see psychological states as invasions by a foreign Agency. (The opening credits line of "The Outer Limit" used to be: 'Don't try to adjust your set. For we control the horizontal and the vertical.'
Sigmund Freud admitted way back when, that he knew he was creating another mythology with his postulates of the Id, the unconscious, and the death wish. I am sure he would be fascinated to see how far this mythopoeia has progressed.
Apparently, we are not far removed from Homer's Greeks who regularly suspected and introduced the meddling gods and goddesses into the stories to explain the actions and decisions taken by heroes.

But I digress . . . thanks again, and all the best to you and yours. If the kiddoes ask you to check their closets for monsters before you turn out the lights, look carefully and closely!
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Old 5th Feb 2012, 15:48   #6
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

Wonderful review, Lucoid! The first new (?) title I've been excited about all year.
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Old 13th Feb 2012, 9:21   #7
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

I read Mr Chartwell some time last year, and liked the fact that it took a very dark subject – depression – and gave the reader a gently humorous examination of a really tricky subject. One of the things I think is fascinating about any examination of mental health issues is that even if you’ve never had the illness, you can recognise and empathise with aspects that chime with your own experience. For example I’ve gone through times when I’ve experienced some pretty severe mood swings (as I think most people probably do from time to time) but when you hear people talk about bipolarity it’s clear that it’s on a completely different scale.

And so with Black Pat. Who hasn’t had a day when they’re more easily distracted than usual? But by inflicting Black Pat upon Esther Hammerhans and having him chew rocks next to her while she’s trying to think, Rebecca Hunt shows us a deeply unpleasant, debilitating presence making Esther’s life almost impossible to live ‘normally’. One aspect I thought was quite skillful was the idea that there can be a peculiar attraction in succumbing to the pressures exerted by the malignant force, that there is almost a seductive quality which lends an element of self-destructiveness to the situation.

There were a couple of things which keep this book in the merely ‘good’ category for me. One was that Esther’s depression was portrayed as being the result of a specific event. I appreciate that this can be a reason for mental illness but wondered if it was due to a need on the part of the author to ‘pin down’ the source of the illness for the reader and if it would have been braver to portray it as something which arose unbidden. Similarly I wondered if there was an implication that Back Pat was now visiting Churchill due to his time of life and impending retirement, whereas I’d understood that Churchill’s black dog was something that he had known all his life.

The other aspect which I didn’t relish all that much was the author’s provision of a romantic interest for Esther and this apparently being a factor in a potentially positive outcome for her. I may be misremembering and perhaps this wasn’t given as much weight as I seem to recollect, and also it may be the case that in the ‘real world’ it is very helpful for someone to have emotional connections and support from a companion, so perhaps this is unfair. I just remember having a bit of a furrowed brow and thinking ‘I hope this isn’t saying that all Esther needs is a man in her life and everything will be ok again.’
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Old 14th Feb 2012, 18:00   #8
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

Hi Ono,
really interesting take on this. It actually makes the text even more appealing, since there are, obviously, real questions that folks may see differently, differ on and discuss profitably. Now that's some good stuff. there.
Thanks.
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Old 15th Feb 2012, 16:34   #9
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

Quote:
Originally Posted by kjml View Post
It seems a kind of psychological primitivism, wherein the psychic conditions are personified as fully interactive characters in the lives of their hosts. Sci-fi genres do something similar, I guess, embodying social anxieties in hordes of the un-dead, body-snatchers, zombies and the like.
Yes, I agree, it does seem to me that the whole premise of the book owes a lot to sci-fi influences...

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Originally Posted by kjml View Post
If the kiddoes ask you to check their closets for monsters before you turn out the lights, look carefully and closely!
... Especially now you've added that Doctor Who-like angle into my thoughts around it! And I've been thinking a lot about the separateness of the condition, too - it really struck me that there's a very pronounced acceptance that this is an illness and although it's part of the sufferer, it is not their fault* - it's something to be fought (more on that in a mo).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Beth View Post
Wonderful review, Lucoid! The first new (?) title I've been excited about all year.
Thanks! You're quite right, it's pretty recent - first published in 2010 by Fig Tree, then by Penguin in 2011. I first heard of it last year when awards were being discussed, and knew straight away it was something I needed to read.

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Originally Posted by ono no komachi View Post
I wondered if there was an implication that Black Pat was now visiting Churchill due to his time of life and impending retirement, whereas I’d understood that Churchill’s black dog was something that he had known all his life.
That's interesting, as I didn't get the impression that this was a one-off or rare spell for Churchill, though perhaps I was imposing my own prior knowledge onto what I was reading. Black Pat claims he needs to rent Esther's room to be close to Churchill but I thought that was just part of his underhanded approach to creating a relationship with her - at no time did I think Churchill was a new or only occasional client of his. Although Esther's nudging into depression does appear to be triggered by the anniversary of her husband Michael's death (another victim of Black Pat's advances), we are also shown other examples of people who've had to deal with depression more frequently, in Michael and Churchill plus members of Churchill's family:

Quote:
Black Pat was looking at Randolph, studying him with languid eyes. Churchill knew that his son also suffered from depressive periods, seeing the same dark reservoirs in Randolph as were quarried in him. Randolph was free from it at this time, but the sight of Black Pat's expression released a billowing cloud of dread in Churchill, knowing the ebbing and flowing methodology of the dog, knowing also how the spores of his influence could work into your core.
Again, I read the use of Corkbowl (the romantic interest) quite differently from your take on what's happening. Yes, he is a factor in her fighting against Black Pat's influence, but I didn't feel his role in this was as key as you did, and I think Hunt was careful to avoid emphasising the 'rescue' aspect of their relationship as much as possible. Esther is on the cusp of falling into Black Pat's grip, but she is at the wobbly state, where she still has a choice in the matter and it could go either way depending on what else is happening around her and how strong-willed she is. The hope of new love certainly helps, but what steels her the most when she reaches the tipping point is the conversation she has with Churchill, when he realises she can see Black Pat, too:

Quote:
Black Pat was speaking [...] 'Esther, all you have to do is consent.'
'Consent to the descent.' She used a toneless whisper. She repeated it to them both.
Black Pat ground his vexed teeth. That enraging, thwarting phrase. He dug his claws into the wallpaper as Esther listened to her memory:
'It's not all you'll have heard': Churchill warning her. 'You are at war... On that you must trust me': his warnings were buzzing propellor blades in an amp full of water. They played again.
I fear we've marched right into spoiler territory - apologies to anyone whose reading pleasure is ruined by the titbits Ono and I have spread around this thread.


*I'm not saying I think anyone with depression can 'just snap out of it' - that's a view I abhor and cannot buy into. I'm (inelegantly) trying to emphasise that this novel is a very modern treatment of depression.
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Old 16th Feb 2012, 4:14   #10
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Default Re: Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell

Hi Lucoid,
Don't worry about the spoilers on my behalf. The intrigue for me, I think, will be in seeing just how this author personifies a condition like depression and what that means about her conception of free will, agency and choices. I find those issues most personally compelling. A good book, even when we know the who and why is still a good read!
Thanks,
kjml
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