Perhaps it is because depression makes a person feel so impenetrable that the illness has inspired so many metaphors. Sylvia Plath described it as a bell jar; William Styron called it a howling tempest. Winston Churchill is credited with depression’s most familiar characterization: the black dog. In her first novel, Hunt brings this beast to life—a walking, talking canine that stands six foot seven on his hind legs, resembles a “strikingly hideous” Labrador, and reeks of menace.
A young parliamentary secretary named Esther is strangely drawn to “Black Pat,” as the animal calls himself. She meets him one morning at her doorstep, come to see about a room she is renting out. Esther is afraid of the dog, but as she reflects on her single life, the sad film of herself “enduring the dregs of the day,” eating a “talentless meal” and washing up in socked feet, she agrees to let Black Pat move in. Somehow, the notion of a flatmate who will torture her makes Esther feel less lonely.
Hunt’s project is bold—Winston Churchill’s retirement, magical realism and the essence of depression all in a debut novel—and her prose is, at times, affected. But there is a gem of sorts in this story, and it lies in the author’s determination to understand how misery messes with a healthy mind. When Churchill cryptically warns her (the two happen to meet, of course) not to “consent to the descent,” Esther hedges—”I feel that I’m the instigator,” she confesses, which is exactly how depression loops back on itself, making the sufferer blame herself for suffering. When Black Pat tells Esther that surrendering to him is the “easiest thing in the world,” the point is not that depression is an indulgence, but that it is so very tough to beat.
Churchill, at age 89, with a world war and the deaths of two of his children behind him, knows this well. “Your must hurl yourself into opposition,” he beseeches Esther. “The battle is not with fighting to accept, but with accepting to fight.”