CBR12 BINGO: Debut
I thought it would be a struggle coming up with a book to read for the Debut BINGO category, but I was fortunate enough to see a CBR Facebook post with some great suggestions. I took note of The Animals at Lockwood Manor and thought, “A mystery that combines natural history with an early World War II England setting? This has my name all over it.” Shout out to whoever posted the suggestion. I can’t find it now or I’d thank you more personally.
This book is a thoughtful and sensitive debut novel. It’s not a mystery in the traditional sense, but more of a love story/character study with Gothic elements, including ghosts, taxidermied animals that seem to move when nobody is watching, and a deteriorating mansion with dark secrets.
The novel opens in 1939, when the mammals of the Natural History Museum in London are being evacuated to Lockwood Manor to ensure their safekeeping in the event that London is bombed by the Luftwaffe. Because so many of the men of England are leaving to fight in the war, it falls to thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright to oversee the evacuation and act as de facto director of the museum in its temporary home. She immediately encounters resistance from Major Lockwood, Lord of the Manor, who boasts to his guests about “his” museum and animals, but she’s drawn to the Major’s daughter Lucy, who is lonely and haunted, and in whom Hetty senses a kindred spirit. Shortly after Hetty and her charges arrive at Lockwood, a jaguar goes missing, and Hetty hears stories about Lucy’s late mother having seen ghosts. Is it Hetty’s imagination, or are animals moving during the night, in spite of guards being on duty and the doors being locked?
The mansion is itself a character, with its many unused rooms and oppressive atmosphere. The house is a paradox of darkness while also throwing light on the deterioration of its inhabitants. Soon after their arrival, Hetty looks mournfully at the state of the animals, “Now the myriad windows and lamps of Lockwood Manor had revealed faults and shabbiness even in the dim long gallery—places where fur had worn away, thread or glue had loosened, eyes become scratched or dull, cabinets bashed or rotten.”
The novel is distinctly feminist in the illustration of Hetty’s treatment by the Major. That she is thirty and unmarried is underscored every time he addresses her as Miss Cartwright, emphasizing the title; that he refers to her as “hysterical” whenever she confronts him about damage to one of the animals is excruciating for how common that description continues to be applied to women in the twenty-first century. Finally, the attraction between Lucy and Hetty (which is telegraphed very early in the novel) is painful because they each have so little in the way of comfort. Lucy’s father treats her like a fragile doll while Hetty’s mother considers her a disappointment for wanting a calling instead of a husband. That they could trust and support each other in a kinder world is the tragedy upon which all the other tragedies in the novel hinge.
The Animals at Lockwood Manor is a slow-moving novel, more Gothic than mystery, evoking elements of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its imposing mansion, imperious housekeeper, and “ghost” of a former inhabitant. While not perfect, this is a fine first novel, and I’m looking forward to more of Jane Healey’s lovely prose.