THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS
By Craig Cliff
325 pp. Milkweed Editions. Paper, $16.
Much has been written and sung about the way distance and the isolation it breeds have shaped the identities of those Europeans who settled in New Zealand. From the music of Split Enz to Eleanor Catton’s novel “The Luminaries,” stories of colonizers who crossed perilous seas to carve out a facsimile of an old society in a strange land are more than familiar. In his debut novel, the New Zealand writer Craig Cliff adds to the canon, but with such ambition, creativity and sheer energy that he shows there’s still something new to say about a national narrative that can seem, at times, to hold no surprises.
In “The Mannequin Makers,” Cliff makes real a desolate, windswept country at the turn of the early 20th century and beyond, a place populated by men and women who have learned that life is hard, and that it can be borne only by keeping one’s feelings carefully trammeled. It is the preoccupation of many a New Zealand novel and at the beginning of this one, things seem to fall into a familiar pattern. In the small town of Marumaru on the North Island’s east coast, Colton Kemp’s wife dies while pregnant and, unable to acknowledge what has happened, he goes about his business in town that day without divulging the news to anyone, pretending she is still alive.
But there is already an inkling that this will be more than another story about a quiet man: Kemp is a carver of department store mannequins, and not an especially good one. In another establishment across town, his rival, known as The Carpenter, does not have Kemp’s imagination, but his mannequins are startlingly lifelike, incurring Kemp’s bitter jealousy.
From there, the tale takes flight in a way that comes close to magic realism, with the characters and events falling into a gothic swoon. In his grief over the loss of his wife, Kemp commits an act so heinous that it sets in motion a story almost Shakespearean in scope. To divulge more would spoil a rollicking plot, but it isn’t revealing too much to say that Cliff’s background as a short story writer gives him a rare skill with the minutiae of structure and characterization. The book is split into four entwined narratives, each from a different point of view, with Kemp’s just the first. A headstrong teenage girl and a man who cannot speak are rich standouts of the book’s second and third acts; Cliff paints the 16-year-old girl as kind and resilient while never overplaying her innocence. It’s one of several tightropes he steps onto with quiet assurance.
Later, in mute, elderly Gabriel Doig, the reader is delivered an immensely satisfying account of shipwreck and survival. That the tale is conveyed in writing to another character, because Doig cannot speak, and that it arrives obviously laden with Cliff’s own research of the historical context, could easily have resulted in unwieldy storytelling. Instead, the book soars.
In the final section, another change of narrator and a jump forward to 1970s Australia bring about the denouement. This is the only place Cliff seems to falter; he has much to reveal about his new storyteller while also needing to wrangle a sprawling plot. Events unspool perhaps a little slowly in the beginning of this section and then rather too quickly toward the end, leaving the characters’ motivations, and the truths we are eager to learn, somewhat occluded.