Thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright has always assumed the role of outcast, even in her own mind. She finds solace among the taxidermic specimens of the natural history museum, and she takes her assignment to oversee their care as they are removed from London during World War II very seriously. Jobs like this are almost never available to women, and Hetty is determined to prove her worth. But upon arriving at Lockwood, the manor home where the specimens are to be kept safe, Hetty immediately encounters setbacks. The first is the dangerous Major Lockwood, whose domineering attitude is offset by that of his meek, charming daughter, Lucy.
Lockwood Manor, with its empty rooms, unending chores and possible ghosts, functions as a central character. Lucy’s mother, the late Heloise Lockwood, suffered immensely in the house, always concerned about being followed by a woman in white—a ghost, a demon or perhaps something conjured by her own mind. The dead woman is shrouded in mystery, from her questionable parenting choices to her untimely demise.
When the museum specimens begin to disappear and move about the house, Hetty doesn’t know what to do or think. Are the animals moving of their own accord, or is foul play involved? How can she best protect them while keeping the peace at Lockwood and ensuring her future employment with the museum?
Comparisons between Jane Healey’s debut and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent are accurate, as The Animals at Lockwood Manor fits beautifully into the category of gothic fiction. Healey juxtaposes a sweet same-sex love story against the bleak backdrop of World War II, although the novel avoids focusing too closely on the war itself. Instead, the romantic escalation drives the plot forward, though frequent dream sequences threaten to derail the momentum.
This is a strong debut, full of creepy cliffhangers, lovely descriptions and a believably inelegant heroine.