The Manikin is not a mannequin, but the curious estate of Henry Craxton, Sr. in a rural western New York State. Dubbed the "Henry Ford of Natural History," by 1917 Craxton has become America's preeminent taxidermist. Into this magic box of a world-filled with eerily inanimate gibbons and bats, owls and peacocks, quetzals and crocodiles-wanders young Peg Griswood, daughter of Craxton's newest housekeeper. Part coming-of-age story, part gothic mystery, and part exploration of the intimate embrace between art and life, Joanna Scott's The Manikin is compulsively readable and beautifully written.
With versatility and virtuosity to spare, Scott has employed her fecund imagination and intensely observant eye in three highly praised novels (the most recent was Arrogance) and one short-story collection (Various Antidotes). Each of the novels was distinguished by an unusual protagonist, meticulously detailed settings, a gothic atmosphere and Scott's interest in the junctions where life and art, or life and science, meet. Here the ``art'' is that of taxidermy, the business that enabled Harold Craxton to build the estate called the Manikin, a huge, gloomy house situated in the isolated countryside of upstate New York, where the narrative is set in 1927. Manikin is the word used in taxidermy for ``the durable forms used to replace the animal's skelton,'' and dozens of stuffed creatures share the house with its human inhabitants: cranky widow Mrs. Craxton and a devoted (but overworked and underpaid) staff, some black, some white. In the course of the novel several dramas are played out, romance is both thwarted and fulfilled, a young woman comes of age and antagonisms between parents and children are endured and resolved. During a blizzard on Christmas Day, three momentous events occur in which everyone's future is instantly changed; six months later, the balance is again altered as Dionysian revels end in harsh reality. Scott's skilled handling of the interplay among a group of disparate people forced to live in close proximity is psychologically keen. But she miscalculates in the character of eccentric taxidermist Boggio, variously compared to the devil, a clown, a prophet, a wizard and ``a true artist, rebellious in spirit.'' His sudden insight at the end is neither credible nor convincing; nor are the narrative's various segues from bildungsroman to gothic novel to Midsummer Night's Dream scenario. Yet Scott's formidable observational skills result in some enchanting writing. Her precise, evocative descriptions of the region's ``irascible climate'' and its flora and fauna, and of the zoological collection eerily inhabiting the house, glisten with brilliant specificity.