The Mannequin Makers, by Craig Cliff (Vintage, 2013), 333 pp., $37.99.
This book, set in colonial New Zealand, manifests as historical fiction. Something fresh too, a twist on what has already been written. With enough authentic detail to make everything appear believable, a step back in time. Fiction set in the past also allows freedom to explore ideas with relevance to the here and now. Many readers may feel a historical story is not really about them, today, so take to understanding any disturbing or controversial ideas with more keenness. This first novel contains a quality plot, with believable scenarios, strange and outrageous details, while finely drawn, idiosyncratic characters take us there.
The book’s cover appears mysterious, and confronting, hinting perhaps at a twisted thriller or psychological horror story. Two teenagers’ faces feature in hyper-real close-up, but shadowy, partly concealed. A blond boy stares over the shoulder of a staring blonde girl. Their mesmeric large blue eyes both attract and repel you.
Before the first part of the novel gets underway, there’s an engraving of gulls, on a whole page. Every section of this four-part narrative begins with a different bird or birds. A tale indeed set in ‘Bird-land’, as New Zealand is sometimes known, colloquially. Each title page also shows dates and a quote. Setting, time-frame and theme are made clear. A brief introduction begins each chapter, a mannered preparation for what follows. You are coaxed into the tale with: ‘Chapter One: In which Colton Kemp’s wife dies mid-morning, surrounded by misshapen mannequins’ – from which a reader may gather that elements other than human may have an overwhelming importance.
So, early twentieth century book design elements, and the sense of a leisurely preamble emphasising that reading is an extremely important activity and must have time devoted to it. There is also a slightly old-fashioned tone given to the book by its inner design features, helping establish a definite sense of the distant past as a setting, before the reading proper begins. Also, language which appears to be of the time is presented skillfully enough that a reader is swept along into, for example, the year 1902.
This writer’s original, vivid and varied style can be somewhat bewildering; however this seems to fit with the themes of this curious first novel. A few times I needed to reread passages to get what on earth was going on, but eventually became thoroughly engrossed. I still wonder about the rest of the characters’ lives, as if they existed. The sense of the struggling colonial community of Marumaru, with its motley assortment of characters typical of a sparsely populated small New Zealand town, also made for an enchanting read. The observant teenagers, who are twins, expertly note these townsfolk, albeit through minds affected by twisted propaganda drilled into them by their father, Mr Kemp.
Enter another character: Mr Doig, who began as a wood-worker, carving with his father, but soon sought adventure on a sailing ship. Then he struggled as a castaway and later, finds employment making mannequins, but lives like a recluse. Doig springs to life, his details skillfully woven into the storyline.
Travelling strongman Sandow provides a touch of celebrity – yet another example of someone statuesque used to promote a lifestyle or product. He’s a role model, too, for the teenage boy, Eugen. The non-identical twins, Avis and Eugen, delivered to their father only to have their mother die concurrently, provide the most alarming and fantastical storylines. It would be unfair to reveal what these are; however, what also appears in this tale is the clear danger of anyone being raised in isolation from wider society. Cliff, in his often superb writing, may show New Zealanders more about ourselves than some of us would like to admit. New Zealand is also isolated, and was extremely so before. We too had a domineering ‘parent’ in Mother Britain, and have only lately stopped being held up as a model society in a supposedly perfect natural wonderland.
Occasionally, despite genuine mastery overall, the prose packs in over-much explaining, but not often. Near the beginning of this complex narrative there are some rather too blatant passages. On page 11: ‘Kemp’s shaky hands and rough temperament were ill suited to life as a carver, but it is curious the paths a life can take, the dead ends to which ambition and rivalry can lead a man.’ This kind of telling sentence seemed out of place and somewhat wooden. We’d be better served by being shown Kemp behaving that way, or his thinking such a thing, or someone else saying it.
But most of Cliff’s writing took me in beautifully, its lively detail and action producing a bounty of surprises. On page 173 there’s a fine description of men up in the rigging of a sailing ship. Such a glorious sense of unease is conveyed, and yet at the same time a roistering sense of adventurousness. This leads elegantly (a subtle surprise inherent in the style of writing) to what sailors did to allay their fears. The idiosyncratic superstitious talismans and rituals they engage in illuminated the crew in a rapid sketch, but with some depth of resonance.
Gradually complexities of the plot unfold. Gabriel Doig and Colton Kemp in Marumaru both end up engaged in the business of creating human figures from wood for commercial displays. Then each of these ‘mannequin makers’ aims to become the best. Lives overlap, rivalries create conflict, and heinous crimes result.
A sense of danger and struggle spark this story from the start where a woman collapses bleeding at the washing line. Subtle if disturbing details lend Cliff’s novel authenticity and create a need for empathy in the reader, so we pay close attention.
The themes or preoccupations of this book are many and varied and include the difficulties of suspending an audience’s disbelief by artificial means; how making a success of oneself can become an obsession; words and the power they may have; and a rather desperate need to be occupied in order perhaps to distract yourself – so as not to have to look within and learn too much, or perhaps find too little. Women, girls and femininity also pervade the story with a sense of desperately struggling humanity, but all shown so gracefully that the reader remains for the most part beguiled.
The two main, older male characters, who are the carvers, harbour various wishes and desires. They want control over materials, themselves, and women in some ways. A mastery that could also be said to affect Eugen, the young son of Mr Kemp. Kemp and Doig yearn to create objects of wonder and then be illuminated with glory as artisans. The son wants to be wondered at, for himself.
These desires can only be fulfilled, they seem to think, through their own labours, their own determination, but the opposite gender mysteriously affects them, and they find such relationships impossible to relinquish. Kemp works relentlessly in a storm of grief over his dead wife. Doig works to create beauty through his art, to show he understands women and can manufacture them as charms for sailing ship figureheads, at first. He later steals what he thinks is an exquisite female mannequin made by Kemp. And one of his own carved figureheads, ‘Vengeance’, appears to follow Doig around the globe as well.
The teenage boy takes over his father’s role when possible and tries to exercise command over his sister. Their peculiar bond also results in travesties I won’t elaborate on, but it’s obvious as soon as the reader understands how these children have grown up, that their actions will appear quite unlike those of everyday people. Sandow the strongman stands up to a temperance woman and refuses to believe the law has the answer, as she asserts. His own regime is all a decent man needs. This circus-like character is perhaps there to show the man alone as a perfect example of physical beauty and strength, not needing women at all, a peculiar ideal. But then the combination of physical power, male beauty and an attitude driven by a belief in ridiculous levels of success are manifested in the teenage boy, and his relationship with his sister suffers, to put it mildly.
The emphasis on male dominance appears to be true to life in the last century (and now, for that matter, to a degree). The way it is shown as male strength, beauty and independence at any cost, however, brings those actions into question, which thankfully provides a thoughtful approach.
The female characters are also strong and sometimes dominate. The women and girls do appear, however, to be usually at the mercy of the men in their milieu.
Violence against both men and women pervades this novel like prevailing weather. The untamed country, the wild seas, a deserted island, social isolation and confusion all put pressure on characters. Expediency creates dangerous circumstances. Arduous, demanding, bewildering lives at the beginning of the twentieth century are drawn strongly and the characters themselves are ‘carved’ by natural and man-made forces. Careful detailing gives violent, crazy scenes credibility and balance. Dramatic elements are usually adept.
Some features of The Mannequin Makers were impossible to accept however, such as teenage children maintaining stillness for hours at a time. I’ve attempted to do this in a sculpture installation, all day. But eventually Cliff’s meticulous, action-packed story softened my scorn, stretched it, made my disbelief suspend itself and finally do acrobatics. The skill of the story-telling carried me along, and later it cleverly explains how some people simply refused to show their disbelief, which helped in making the feat of the Kemp twins standing ‘frozen’, believable: a kind of mass delusion, perhaps.
Although I found the many points of view refreshing, and each important character’s story is carefully divided into its own part, the novel disconcertingly seemed to dip and dive quite often (perhaps rather like the way birds fly). Also, The Mannequin Makers moves through four distinct points of view. First, the narrative is told at a distance, mainly through Mr Kemp and his supposed wife. Then it switches but reels on, with a slightly surreptitious tone, in the teenage Avis Kemp’s diary. Next, due to his mute state (sadly, his voice wore out while shouting for help), there’s written dialogue by Gabriel Doig with the girl, Avis. Lastly, the voice of Eugen, who changes in many ways but also stays self-obsessed and distant, finishes the tale. He lacks a good memory, his past is sliding away, but what he keeps up is appearances. Swapping points of view can be startling, but here it renders the ‘unsettled’ nature of the times well, the characters’ unease with their own perceptions. The multi-narration technique gives The Mannequin Makers a contemporary feel, too, as when you surf the Internet and take in all kinds of information about a story, often in different forms or from fresh viewpoints. I enjoyed the uncertainty, in time, and the changes gave some of the potentially more harrowing aspects levity. I grew to expect the unexpected, and Cliff never disappointed by becoming predictable.
Like any truly engaging novel The Mannequin Makers revealed layers of meanings; the story lingered, even haunted me. With extraordinarily distinct voices telling an intriguing tale from various viewpoints, the novel flows with the inevitability of a river. The Mannequin Makers has much relevance to the present day with reminders of how easily people are fooled and manipulated at times. This novel makes allusion to origins, to where things start from: the past builds the future; we need to understand that not everything is under our command this minute. Also, everyone has their own saga to tell, even those stricken with grief, apparently mute, treated like dummies. Highly recommended.
RAEWYN ALEXANDER writes fiction and poetry. She is also an editor and publisher and teacher of creative writing. Her e-book What We Talk About When We Talk About Death, Money and Heart was published by Brightspark Books in 2012. Staples – Recipes, Hints, Poetry, inspired by her status updates online, was published by Brightspark Books in 2013. A new novel, Glam Rock Boyfriends, will be published by Brightspark Books in May 2014.