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BookBrowse Reviews The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff

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The Mannequin Makers

by Craig Cliff

The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff X
The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff
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  • Paperback:
    Nov 2017, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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The Mannequin Makers is a gothic tale of a father's obsession, a castaway story and tragic misunderstandings.

In The Mannequin Makers, a grieving widower makes an outlandish decision: On the day his twin children are born and his wife dies in childbirth, Colton Kemp chooses to raise them - a son, Eugen and a daughter, Avis - in seclusion. His sole purpose is to present them, at the age of sixteen, as mannequins in the department store window that he is employed to dress. The year is 1902 and the setting is Marumaru. The small town in New Zealand has two department stores and Kemp's bizarre decision seems to be prompted, at least in part, by an intense rivalry with the window dresser of the other store: a man who does not speak and who is known only as The Carpenter.

The novel that unfolds from this unusual premise moves forward and backward in time, and is dark in many ways. At its center is the question of what happens when the children, brought up to believe that their lives are normal, finally become old enough to take their positions in the window. Right around the time the twins are born, the world's strongest man arrives in Marumaru. His rigorous exercise regime provides Kemp a template to train his children to stand without moving, without even blinking, for over four hours at a time. Avis recounts the convincing lies Kemp tells in order to trick her and her brother into acting as mannequins. And while Avis appears relatively unaffected by her upbringing, Eugen's character is altogether more dangerous. The consequences of the twins' abnormal upbringing are offset by moments of great tenderness and humor.

Then there is The Carpenter's narrative, a tale of a young boy growing up in poverty in Scotland. He becomes a carver of figureheads for ships, a carpenter, a castaway and finally a mannequin-maker for a department store in remote Marumaru, determined to find the truth about the two lifelike figures his rival unveils. The Carpenter is a warm and engaging character whose kindness and gentleness bring great warmth to this unusual tale.

In Cliff's deft hands all these bizarre elements are surprisingly believable. The narrative is woven together from disparate strands mixing the various characters' perspectives before climaxing, in almost gothic fashion, on a cliff face miles from Marumaru. At times The Carpenter's vocabulary seems advanced for a man of his background and education - he talks of saving an "escallop of penguin" meat and describes himself as "farinacious," but in a story that demands a great deal of suspension of disbelief, that is only a minor quibble.

The Mannequin Makers is a literary novel with several narrators who may or may not be reliable. The final section is given to Avis' brother Eugen and his world view is much darker than his sister's, his anger more dangerous. His actions bring the novel to a dramatic conclusion. Some of Eugen's reflections on his upbringing prompt as many questions as they answer, but this is not a book that pretends to offer answers, which might frustrate some readers. As entertaining as it is challenging, The Mannequin Makers is an impressive debut.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review first ran in the January 3, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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