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In 1964, 89 year old Winston Churchill wakes up to find a looming presence in his room.  It is the depression from which he has suffered throughout his life, which he famously called the “black dog.”  Across town, Esther Hammerhans opens her front door to find a huge black dog standing outside, wanting to rent her spare room.  The black dog introduces himself as Mr Chartwell, and later comes to be known as Black Pat.  Esther has no idea who or what he is, or why he has sought her out.  So will she find out before she falls under his diabolical spell?

This is such an unusual novel that I find it very difficult to review.  The premise sounds completely absurd – to make the black dog of depression into an actual black dog, who can talk and interact with those whose life he infiltrates – and does not sound as though it should work.  However, as a plot device it works incredibly well, showing how depression can creep up on someone insiduously, how it can affect all areas of life, and how it can be strangely attractive.

The narrative is in the third person, and takes place over a few days during which Churchill retires completely from politics.  The story switches from Churchill to Esther, who do not know each other, and are unaware that they have a mutual companion.  I thought the writing was terrific – descriptive, but without any unnecessary words, subtle, and at times very funny.  However, the humour had a distinct sting in the tail.

Esther is a beautifully drawn character, who was easy to believe in, and Churchill was also described brilliantly (as was his wife, Clementine), and facts from his real life were woven into the story.  Black Pat hovers over every scene ominously and is variously shown as tender, spiteful, witty, selfish, cynical and inviting.  But while he can sometimes be quite likeable (at least in the form which he takes in this story), the reader is never allowed to forget exactly who he is and what he represents.

I’m not sure that my review has done this book justice.  However, I will say that it was one of the most original stories I’ve read in a long time, and despite the unusual premise, it worked on every level for me.  This is Rebecca Hunt’s debut novel – I certainly hope that she will write more!

(I would like to thank British Bookshops & Stationers for sending me a review copy of this book.  British Bookshop & Stationers’ website can be found here.)

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