The Mannequin Makers is at turns a gothic tale of a father’s obsession, a castaway story worthy of a Boy’s Own adventure and a thorny remembrance of past tragedies.
The skin was as near white as porcelain, but looked as if it would give to the touch. What manner of wood had he used? What tools to exact such detail? What paints, tints or stains to flush her with life?
So wonders the window dresser Colton Kemp when he sees the first mannequin of his new rival, a man the inhabitants of Marumaru simply call The Carpenter. Rocked by the sudden death of his wife and inspired by a travelling Vaudeville company, Kemp decides to raise his children to be living mannequins. What follows is a tale of art and deception, strength and folly, love and transgression, that ranges from small town New Zealand to the graving docks of the River Clyde and an inhospitable rock in the Southern Ocean to Sydney’s northern beaches. Along the way we meet a Prussian strongman, a family of ship’s carvers with a mysterious affliction, a septuagenarian surf lifesaver and a talking figurehead named Vengeance.
New Zealander Cliff makes a stunning American debut with a story about obsession gone horribly wrong. At the beginning of the 20th century, wood carver Colton Kemp, who lives in the small town of Marumaru and carves mannequins for store windows, has just become the widower father of twins after his wife died during childbirth. Kemp is inspired by Eugen Sandow, the real-life German father of modern bodybuilding, to raise his children to become mannequins to thwart his rival, known as "the Carpenter." Raised in isolation and trained in the Sandow method of diet, exercise, and muscle control, the twins, Avis and Eugen, learn to hold poses for hours, preparing for their store-window debut. The novel unfolds in four parts, covering a span of time from 1859 to 1974. First, readers see how Kemp is galvanized both by his wife's death and the incredible feats of strength and control he observes in a Sandow performance. In the second part, Avis's diary reveals the painstaking routine she and her brother endure, and the odd perspective about life and relationships developed in their sequestered environment. In the third, readers are regaled with incredible adventures at sea as the Carpenter, who has lost his voice, gives Avis a written account of how a young carver in Scotland ended up in a small New Zealand town. In the final part, Eugen, now in his 70s, fills in the blanks, revealing the cataclysmic events that followed their appearance in the store window. This is a spellbinding and original tale, rife with perilous journeys, fascinating historical detail, and memorable characters.