As soon as I read the premise of The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey, I was intrigued. It is 1939, war is declared, and a decision is taken to move the exhibits from the Natural History Museum to safety. Hetty Cartwright is charged with moving the mammal collection to a country house where they, and she, will stay for the duration of the war.
Lockwood Manor is one of those atmospheric houses in literature that will stay with you after you read it. Crumbling, dusty and dirty, it has rats and secret rooms, ghost stories and scandal. It is an extra character in this story and in fact has a clearer presence than some of the peripheral characters who perhaps could have been deleted. Hetty arrives with her cargo of taxidermy animals in display cases plus catalogues and samples to find a mixed welcome from the manor’s servants who see the new arrivals as extra work. The irascible lord of the manor welcomes them then disappears, he is seen briefly at mealtimes and when ushering his latest girlfriend from the house. At first Hetty, charged with the care of the mammals, is kept busy arranging, cleaning and organising. Then she finds an ally in the lord’s daughter, Lucy, who though mentally fragile, finds peace amongst the animals. Hetty and Lucy, with their vulnerabilities and lack of confidence, have almost inter-changeable voices.
Then Hetty hears noises at night and starts to find animals not in their correct place in the morning. So when a case of hummingbirds is opened and the tiny stuffed treasures disappear, it becomes clear that something sinister lurks in the house. Is it a ghost, a mischief maker or a burglar? The odious Lord Lockwood and the equally unlikeable housekeeper are dismissive of Hetty’s fears, adding to her feeling of incompetence. This is part ghost mystery, part love affair, part family history. Hetty suspects everyone, first of mischief but she soon comes to realise it is something altogether more dangerous. Feeling vulnerable in her own job and not wanting to admit she can’t cope, she vascillates over writing to her boss in London. The delay is costly.
I remained conflicted about this book to the end. The clever idea is hindered by a slow pace and repetitive description, there are many beautiful passages which do not add to the plot. The final quarter raced along well enough though I still skipped some paragraphs, but I was left feeling I had read a nineteenth century Gothic story set in the Victorian era not World War Two. The absence of war from Lockwood Manor is such that the story might have been set at another time, the wartime setting is wasted. The introduction of a voice from outside the house would rectify this omission, perhaps from someone at the museum, adding conflict, moving the plot along and strengthening the feeling that Lockwood Manor exists in an abnormal bubble.
Read it for the descriptions of the house, the brooding atmosphere and for the way Hetty likens everyone she meets to an animal. ‘Lucy had been called a dove by her father but, as a mammal lover, I thought that she rather reminded me of a cat somehow, in her glamour and warm smiles’.
BUY THE BOOK
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
#Bookreview THE ANIMALS AT LOCKWOOD MANOR by @Healey_Jane https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4EE via @SandraDanby