It’s just the kind of pitiless misfortune fit to make a gothic villain: small-town department store window dresser Colton Kemp, cursed with a lack of talent in carving mannequins for his otherwise excellent displays, takes consolation in his beloved wife (whose face he’s always aimed to recreate) until she suddenly dies in childbirth. Deprived of that solace and mocked by the failures that fill his workshop, he is further tormented by the arrival of a silent master carver whose lifelike mannequins are trumping his own efforts.
In his moment of crisis, given the example of a visiting vaudeville human statue and a Prussian strongman, Kemp decides to train and mould his twin children into impossibly exact living mannequins, trumping his rival’s recreations of life by passing off living bodies as illusions. The townspeople are impressed, a scout from Ballantynes shoulder-taps Colton to bring his masterpieces to the big smoke – in short, things are looking up, as long as the illusion holds and nobody starts asking questions.
Needless to say, it doesn’t, but the pleasure is in what else is revealed after Kemp’s best-laid plans start to go wrong. The initial small-town gothic invites comparisons with acknowledged New Zealand classics by Ronald Hugh Morrieson and David Ballantyne’s recently rediscovered Sydney Bridge Upside Down – the difference lies in the scope of what comes after, as Craig Cliff expands the story decades out from its turn of the century starting point through the experiences of Kemp’s twin daughter and son, and back into the past to reveal the origins of the Carpenter, the mute craftsman who unwittingly helped to send Kemp on his twisted course in the first place.
Revealing any more of the plot would be a discredit to Cliff’s inventiveness, but suffice it to say it’s played out with energy and wit that carry the attention right through its various breaks in time and space, and the accompanying shifts in narration (from third person to diaries to a written dialogue between characters) that might have seemed clunky in a lesser novel.
Character and setting are drawn with deftness, and Cliff evokes the 19th-century shipyards of Scotland and the rigours of life at sea with the same effectiveness he does the sleepy South Island town where the novel starts out.
This is an engaging and deadly smart novel, one that wears a great deal of historical research lightly and that nicely plays out one engrossing theme: the human compulsion to produce ideal images of humanity, and the way those images and illusions are written back onto living bodies and lives.
As a debut novel from the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning author of the short-story collection A Man Melting (2011), The Mannequin Makers lives up to its cover blurb billing Cliff as a talent to watch – it’s tremendous, darkly entertaining and original from start to finish.
THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS, by Craig Cliff (Vintage, $37.99).