My rating: 3 stars
Throughout the years, authors have been choosing to set their books in striking houses that hide secrets and disturb their new inhabitants. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë are only two remarkable examples. The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey is also set in an imposing house, but its characters are not as well crafted nor the pacing is as successful as they could have been. In fact, the gripping resolution asked for a much better structured novel overall.
The year is 1939. Hetty Cartwright, one of the first-person narrators, has been given the responsibility to keep the Natural History Museum’s mammal collection safe at Lockwood Manor, since the war is expected to ravage London. She studied Zoology at Oxford and her dream has always been working at a museum. She was adopted by a well-off family as a child, but close after her father’s death, her mother renounced her. When she arrives at the new address of her precious collection, she is greeted by Major Lord Lockwood, who is rude and arrogant, and soon after meets her daughter, Lucy, whose point of view readers are also presented with.
Lucy’s mother and grandmother died just a couple of months before, so she considers her responsibility to oversee the running of the manor. Its many empty rooms leave her uneasy, however. She recalls how her mother, who believed that she was being haunted by a woman in white, and later herself became plagued by nightmares. Her mother wished she had never gone living at Lockwood Manor. Hetty’s arrival gives her a new occupation, as she starts helping cleaning and dusting the animals. Later they have breakfast together and start forging a bond.
Hetty is very keen on doing an exemplary work, but during her very first days at Lockwood Manor a jaguar disappears. To make matters worse, not only will many other animals in the collection either go missing or be moved, but Hetty also finds a creepy doll under her bed. It is poked with three pins – one in the forehead, one in the heart and the other in the belly. She shows it to Lucy, who recognises it. Her mother made various of those dolls to put under Lucy’s bed and protect her from a devil woman who wears white. Although halfway through the book Hetty discovers why some of the animals have been going missing, some of the answers regarding the disappearances and other unexpected disclosures are only revealed close to the end.
The final revelation about what has truly been happening at Lockwood, albeit interesting and attention grabbing, comes slightly out of the blue. The characters involved should have been more focused on throughout the book, allowing readers to have a better understanding of their personalities and to pay more attention to their actions.
That could have easily been done in the same number of pages, since the never-ending and extensive mentions of the taxidermy animals are unnecessary. In fact, together with the constant, already understood, allusions to the mental health issues of Lucy’s mother and to the difficulty of hiring new servants, they make the novel feel repetitive. It doesn’t help that the action takes place almost solely at the manor.
The main characters also don’t have very distinctive personalities, and Hetty’s point of view in particular is not introspective enough about crucial issues. When the story is told from Hetty’s perspective, it seems like she is just reporting occurrences from her life to someone else (there’s no indication that that’s the case, though), instead of readers being inside her head and having access to her most intimate thoughts. Too many times, it feels like the characters are kept at a distance, despite the book being narrated in the first person. It’s only when Lucy recalls the traumas of her childhood that the prose becomes more impactful. We can feel her torment, in spite of her not remembering everything.
Although the book is not atmospheric enough, Jane Healey occasionally managed to create an eerie sensation about Lockwood.
“I took any excuse to spend time outside away from the house, staring with tired eyes at the blue of the sky or the lush green of the garden foliage, trying to ignore the grey towers of Lockwood looming at the corners of my vision.”
The historical setting of The Animals at Lockwood Manor is not of extreme relevance for the development of the plot. Despite the war being the reason why the animals had to be moved, it only starts being more significant in the lives of the characters in the last third of the book. The way Lord Lockwood addresses Hetty, with contempt and derision, and how she constantly feels that she has to prove herself paint a thought-provoking picture of how women were perceived back then, though.
Some novels leave us frustrated not because they are terrible, but because of their unrealised potential. The Animals at Lockwood Manor hides a dreadful secret that could have been more delved into, while also getting the characters much closer to the readers.