Trigger warning for sexual assault and child abuse.
Reading Jane Healey’s The Animals at Lockwood Manor was not a comfortable experience. At first, I felt annoyance and frustration on behalf of Hetty Cartwright. Hetty is one of the lone women employed by an unnamed London natural history museum at the outset of World War II. As such, she faces a lot of snide comments about being a spinster in a man’s job. She keeps her head down and does her job as a preservationist for the Victorian-era taxidermied specimens as best she can, but she is the kind of person who is dogged by bad luck. When Hetty is assigned to accompany the museum’s collection to a country manor—to avoid anticipated German bombing of the city—it is a chance to prove her worth once and for all. Except for the fact that Hetty’s luck lands her right in the middle of a house full of chilling secrets, a place that makes her wonder if she wouldn’t have been safer with the bombs.
Hetty should have known that Lockwood Manor was not the best place for the museum’s collection right from the beginning. In the process of getting the animals unpacked and resettled, a very expensive stuffed jaguar goes missing. The lord of the manor, Major Lockwood, is curiously blasé about the disappearance. In fact, he chides Hetty for getting worked up about it. Readers and people who’ve had the misfortune to meet people like Major Lockwood will instantly spot the signs of a gas-lighter. Major Lockwood had my hackles up right away. If he wasn’t bad enough, his daughter, Lucy, brings out Hetty’s protective instincts—so much so that Hetty ignores everything the Major says about her delicate nature to befriend her and give her jobs to do to help take Lucy’s mind off of her night terrors and anxiety.
The Animals at Lockwood Manor‘s plot ratchets up the tension by moving the taxidermied animals around the house. Nothing stays where Hetty puts it. Things go missing entirely. The housekeeper is inexplicably hostile. Major Lockwood is proprietary about his things and very dismissive of Hetty’s concerns. As it must, the plot builds up to an explosive reckoning. Unlike other creepy country house novels, this one features a touching romantic plotline as Hetty and Lucy realize their attraction for each other.
I debated whether or not to put details into my trigger warning for this book. I didn’t want to give away significant details about the characters’ secrets. In the end, I put some details because I’ve learned of the necessity of giving reader’s a heads-up about content that has the potential to distress people. While the events that merited a trigger warning are heinous, I wouldn’t say that this book is too frightening or upsetting to read. The Animals at Lockwood Manor is fairly original for a country manor mystery novel, with a wonderful main character in Hetty. I completely identified with her preservationist instincts because, as a librarian, I have a strong respect for conserving important objects for the future. I also have a similar distain for people who try to treat artifacts like props. I also enjoyed seeing two characters who believed that they might live loveless lives find each other; this trope always makes me happy. Also, like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, the ending of The Animals at Lockwood Manor makes up for a lot of bitter doses earlier in the novel.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.