This is one of those novels that really is a leap into the unknown; eccentric, unpredictable and original. It’s one of those books that you pick up with no foreknowledge; the blurb is mysterious, the story a little eccentric, but there’s something about it that calls to you – you decide to take a punt. Good decision, this is an extraordinary tale, an impressive debut (The Mannequin Makers was first published in New Zealand in 2013). It’s a dark story of obsession, love, twisted grief and adventure. The destructive power of one man’s fixation damages the people around and eventually explodes in tragedy. Even though you know that, this novel will surprise you, shock you, leave you drained but satisfied. Most novels offer up a plot deviation or a final twist that you may not see coming but the incredible invention of The Mannequin Makers is so unpredictable that it is exhilarating. At times the story has a taut sense of threat more common in a thriller.

Set in New Zealand across several decades in the nineteenth and twentieth century, The Mannequin Makers deals in contemporary themes and has a very modern feel, some scenes are cut sharply, leaving a lot to the imagination. However, there is a sense of pastiche too. The novel has four parts, they vary the tempo, the style of storytelling, it’s clever and engaging. You’ll laugh but more often heave a sigh, or shed a tear, maybe even read through your fingers with fear. This is not a horror story but it has elements of the gothic about it.

There is real threat here and that makes this novel terrifying and fascinating because, somehow, the macabre is both at the same time. The Mannequin Makers opens with the tragic death of a young woman in child birth, naturally this evokes sympathy. Cliff then diverts the reader’s curiosity – metaphorically, the circus comes to town. Our sense of danger is growing all the time, though, evoking feelings of trepidation and apprehension and a cold shiver down the spine. The Mannequin Makers reminds me of two novels: The Art of Murder by Jose Carlos Somoza for its creepiness and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber for its sense of jeopardy.

Colton Kemp, window dresser, has just finished Ursula, his latest model, like most of his work she is made in the image of Louisa, his wife. She’s good but ultimately he has again failed to capture life in his art. This despite the hours his heavily pregnant wife spent in a clay machette as his muse. Over the years he has tried wax, which melts under the heat of the gas lamps, and papier-mâché/plaster of Paris, neither achieves the look of real flesh. Kemp envies his rival the Carpenter, an exceptional carver of mannequins. Louisa’s sister ‘Flossie’ Florence has lived with the couple since the death of her parents in Christchurch. Florence is company for her sister as Kemp is preoccupied with his work but something is wrong. From the studio barn Kemp sees Louisa stumbling through the washing covered in blood, it’s quite an image. At a distance he hopes, for one terrible moment, that it could be Flossie, but…

Marumaru was not a scheduled stop on the tour for Eugen Sandow, the world famous strong man. So it was a surprise to everyone when the young Maori minder stepped down from the train with the life-size plaster likeness of Sandow, which usually presaged a theatre engagement. A crowd soon gathers. The two rival stores vie for the privilege of displaying the statue. Charles Begg, of the Emporium Hercus is furious at Kemp’s absence, the man cannot be found anywhere in town. The Carpenter, however, is present and he takes Sandow’s model to Donaldson’s store, where it is given pride of place and draws the crowd.

Kemp has wandered off, leaving Flossie to take care of the new-born twins.

“He stood on the edge of the crag, staring out at the horizon. Looking due east he was faced with over five thousand miles of uninterrupted ocean. All but six of those miles, however, were hidden by the curvature of the earth. This thought, the concealed distance, the massive isolation, was more fearsome to him than the thought of the rocks thirty feet below.”

If he is contemplating suicide Kemp doesn’t actually jump to his death, he pisses into the wind instead. It’s a warning of things to come, like the sea Kemp has hidden depths, a dark side, a selfish and obsessive nature and since has just lost the love of his life he is free to take on the world. Kemp doesn’t tell anyone about Louisa, her death, or the arrival of the children.

Meanwhile, Young Jesse, the statue minder, is enjoying his celebrity (with the help of Julia at the Criterion Hotel). Perhaps this small town could stage a show after all, the arrangements are made. The world famous Sandow entertains the audience while Kemp watches from the wings. The strong man sells his wares to a curious crowd:

“Undoubtedly”, Sandow replied. “They have adopted my system in Coney Island and no fewer than eighty persons have been sent out of the asylum thoroughly cured. It is the body that feeds the brain…”

The blending of strange history and fiction is magical.

Sixteen years later Eugen and Avis Kemp are preparing for “the window”. They now work for their father and Flossie had taken on the role of mother. Their bodies are toned and trained in adherence with the teachings of the great Sandow. The children have been prepared all their lives for this great challenge… They have been lied to and deceived by their father and their hopes and expectations are about to be crushed.

But we mustn’t forget the Carpenter, Gabriel, he has a fascinating tale to tell, his life story begins in Scotland, he has carved figure heads for ships, taken to the sea, survived a shipwreck and lost the power of speech. His story might make a novel in its own right but it’s one section of the greater tale here.

Stories within stories begin to make sense of the strange off-kilter world of Marumaru and the Kemp family. A dark tale of love and loss becomes even darker as obsession blinds Colton Kemp to the needs of his family but the children have dangerous secrets of their own. Motives are misunderstood, madness, jealousy and innocence give rein to violence. Tragedy is inevitable.

The Mannequin Makers is an energetic novel, colourful and vivid. It will leave you breathless.

Paul Burke 5/5

The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff
Melville House 9781911545293 pbk Jun 2019