In Marumaru, a small town on the east coast of New Zealand, at the turn of the 20th century, mannequin maker Colton Kemp is caught in a bitter rivalry with the town’s only other mannequin maker, a sinister, mute man dressed in old-fashioned suits who’s known only as “The Carpenter.” Colton accidentally gouges a chunk of skin from his forefinger, and not long after, his wife Louisa bleeds to death after unexpectedly going into labor at the washing line. Louisa’s death leaves newborn twins Eugen and Avis in the care of the distraught Colton, who channels his grief into obsession. He keeps the children shut away from the world and trains them to become the perfect “mannequins.” Once they turn 16, they will be released from their confined world into “the window,” where they will be on storefront display.
Instantly, we are deep in Gothic horror: small-town New Zealand, hidden desires, lies, trapped children, an ominous rivalry, and mounting tension. What elevates the novel from other Gothic tales is the breadth of time it covers. The story ranges from 1859 to 1970, transporting readers from Scotland to New Zealand to Australia with stops in between.
Narratively, Mannequin Makers is an ambitious first novel. The story is structured with four interlinked parts, each of which is distinct and tightly crafted. The opening section, “Welcome to Marumaru,” details how Colton, inspired by real-life German bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, becomes obsessed with physical perfection. The second section, “A Mannequin’s Tale,” is told from the point of view of Avis through her diary entries. In Marumaru 15 years on, she details the twins’ life of isolation and intense physical training, which culminates in their performance in “the window.”
The third part, “The Carpenter’s Tale,” allows the mute Carpenter — real name Gabriel Doig — to tell the story of how he came to be in Marumaru. Beginning in Scotland in 1859, Gabriel learns the family trade practiced by his father and grandfather, eventually becoming a carver of ships’ figureheads in River Clyde. A grim voyage on a clipper ship in the late 1880s results in the frantic desperation of life as a castaway when he washes up on Antipodes Island, 400 miles from the nearest city, Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island. The novel’s final section, “The Mannequin Speaks,” takes place in the 1970s and is Eugen’s story. Through a lens distorted by time and blurry with regret, Eugen, now an aging lifesaver at Collaroy Beach in Sydney, Australia, fills in the chilling blanks of what became of Colton, Avis, and the Carpenter.
Colton’s story is the only one told using third-person narration, a distancing Cliff likely employed to assure readers that they are getting the full truth. The author’s intention may also have been to deny Colton the same sympathy readers are likely to feel for the other main characters, who get to narrate their own stories. As a result, the first-person narrators are naturally more compelling, but they’re also less reliable. This forces readers to piece together questionable information from multiple sources until a picture emerges of four imperfect human beings striving to do good but swerving off task, with terrible consequences. The novel ends on a note of touching, bittersweet acceptance of the perils of the human struggle.
The short stories in Cliff’s collection A Man Melting, which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, have a wacky sense of the surreal, whereas The Mannequin Maker, his first novel and American debut, has a Gothic, less comedic edge. The sentence-level craft Cliff applied to his stories, however, is equally evident in the novel.
The intensity of the landscape is integral to the book’s plot. In the first three parts, the characters struggle uselessly against the impartial, brutal elements. Cliff has evidently done a large amount of historical research for this novel, but the prose is not weighed down by the details. Instead, readers are artfully immersed in the worlds Cliff conjures with such skill — the sawdust and sweat of mid-18th-century Scotland, the salt spray and sea-sickness of travel on the merciless open ocean, the crippling hunger and impending madness of life as a castaway with only a wooden figurehead for company. The author’s visceral descriptions of eating raw penguin flesh are not for the squeamish.
New Zealand is a set of islands, so the sea is always at the edges of the frame. The novel stakes a similar position, the sea ever present, a potent reminder of the vastness of the planet, of the inevitability of change, of the indifference of nature to our paltry lives and plans. Gabriel spends time at sea, then finds himself marooned by it. Avis and Eugen long to see the water, a mystical force they have heard about but have never been allowed to experience. And years later, Eugen will end up spending his adult years patrolling the waves, doing penance for his wrongs by keeping people safe.
Marumaru at the turn of the 20th century is a backwater town not yet touched by progress, so it’s tempting to see Colton’s barbaric actions against his children as a product of the time. However, Sydney’s Collaroy Beach in the ’70s, with its easy ebb and flow of surfers and dog walkers and sun-seekers, Eugen’s wandering eye taking in the young men flexing their tanned muscles and scantily clad girls on the sand, reminds us that humans’ lust for physical perfection remains unchanged. In transporting us to Australia for the final, modern part of his tale, Cliff keeps the New Zealand landscape firmly in the dark and bitter past, when life was one long battle for survival. In contrast, the contemporary setting of Collaroy Beach is all sunshine and relaxed ease — the darkness is all on the inside. By doing this, Cliff never breaks the magic by bringing in modern-day New Zealand, which readers may have found jarring.
To this New Zealand writer, Mannequin Makers feels like a very New Zealand novel in its obsession with the cruelty of the elements and the unrelenting beauty and bleakness of the landscape. Like the young “mannequins” Avis and Eugen, the landscape too bears the unmistakable marks of colonization. When Gabriel ends up a castaway, the land he encounters is uncompromisingly harsh. He must take it by force, much as he and the other characters — even the ones made of wood — were forcibly molded into something else.
But labeling Mannequin Makers a “New Zealand novel” is not meant to ghettoize it. It is a strikingly vivid tale full of startling yet believable twists anchored by the compassionate portrayal of lives overrun with obsession and the drive for perfection. It is an original and gripping read, a rich book by an accomplished writer.
The short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction of Auckland, New Zealand–based writer Heidi North has appeared widely in journals and anthologies in New Zealand and internationally. Her debut poetry collection Possibility of Flight was published in New Zealand in 2015.