The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

Don’t be put off by the title The Animals of Lockwood Manor and believe it to be a collection of fables as nothing could be further from the truth. It could, I suppose, be described as a fabulous read, although, in truth, it lends itself more to a taut suspenseful gothic thriller than anything else, with madwomen, flighty figures in the night and macabre animal offerings left on desks.

Hetty is the custodian of a collection of mammalian stuffed exhibits that have been transferred to Lockwood from London to escape the bombardment of the Blitz. The country house, the family seat of Major Lockwood, is a big sprawling place with many uninhabited rooms and few servants to maintain it. Along with the Major lives Lucy Lockwood, his daughter, charming and demure but subject to a nervous disposition that sees her sleepwalking and prone to nightmares. The Major is a true alpha male, keen to undermine Hetty and her earnest bid to preserve the animals in her charge.

But when incidents happen that cause the creatures to be moved or become damaged or even worse, disappear completely, Hetty’s place of refuge for the animals feels less like a place to preserve them and more a place where they are endangered.

What Healey also manages to portray through Hetty’s character is someone who has worked hard to get to the position she holds at the museum and who is keen to maintain it and how for her gender, she has achieved much but that it is fragile and could be shattered at any moment. There is the sense that if she were a man, she would not be subject to the same disrespect that she receives from the Major and his staff and this tightrope that she continually has to walk adds to the tension in the book – you feel like she could do more but is hesitant to do so in case she loses what she has worked hard to gain.

The strength of this book is its atmosphere: suspenseful, tense, broodingly dark at times – it has a gothic air, there is no doubt. The idea of an old country mansion stuffed full of immobile animals, some predators, immediately sets the scene for something that gives you that prickly feeling on your skin and Healey is masterful at maintaining the idea that there are secrets here, waiting to emerge.

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