I had a very good feeling about this book. A historical novel, touted as appealing to fans of Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry, two writers I adore, and featuring a director of the natural history museum (my spiritual home) as one of the protagonists, it sounded right up my street. I was sufficiently intrigued to preorder the absolutely beautiful special edition, and I didn’t wait long after receiving this treasure of a book before diving in.
I was not disappointed. Hetty, who has been promoted due to the outbreak of World War II, is entrusted with the task of evacuating the museum’s mammal collection to Lockwood, a rambling manor house full of dark corridors and empty rooms. Her first person narrative is intercut with that of Lucy, also recently “promoted” to lady of the manor by the deaths of her mother and grandmother in a car accident. Healy uses the contrasting narratives to brilliant effect, countering Hetty’s rational pragmatism with the swirling anxieties of Lucy’s nightmares and uncertainties. I was immediately drawn to Hetty, whose strength of character and independence is tempered with highly realistic insecurities about her role in a male-dominated world, but it was Lucy who worked her way into my imagination as I continued reading this sensitive, beautiful book. I felt so sorry for her, I almost cried at points, and I shared Hetty’s desire to protect her from the mysteriously sinister house she is bound to.
The developing relationship between Hetty and Lucy is one of the best love stories I have read for a long time, perfectly capturing the gradual realisation of romantic and sexual tension, the joy of discovering each other’s bodies, and the anguish of separation. If I was a bit younger, I’d probabaly say I was “shipping” them or some such (no idea if I am using that right).
The Major, Lucy’s father, is a fantastically odious character, and I enjoyed hating him alongside Hetty. As the story unfolds, he becomes increasingly sinister, and I thought his transformation from cantankerous old man to full-blown antagonist was extremely well done. Lucy’s late mother also casts her shadow over the book, and is a beautifully mysterious and complicated character, putting me in mind of Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea. (The Major, too, has echoes of Rhys’ Mr Rochester.)
The novel’s finale is both surprising and somehow inevitable, and it had me riveted. This really was a book that I felt very sad to reach the end of, not only because of my affection for the two protagonists, but because of the way in which Healey manages to turn both the manor house and the museum animals into major characters in their own right, leading to an immersive and almost visual reading experience. And I am definitely going to start using Hetty’s quirk of classifying people as animals, no question. I think I’m an African small-spotted cat. And you?