#Review The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliffe @Craig_Cliff @melvillehouse @tomclaytonesque #TheMannequinMakers

 

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The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff  Melville House  June 6th 2019

‘The skin was smooth and bright 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, which ranges from small-town New Zealand to the graving docks of the River Clyde, 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.

My Review

We’ve all seen the mannequins in store windows, elegantly modelling the clothes they want us all to wear, but who makes them, who dresses and sets the window.

Enter The Carpenter and Colston Kemp, dressers for two rival stores in small town Manumura. Each had their own style, their own characteristics, each had their own story to tell and what a story it was.

It was a story that enthralled and surprised, as it wasn’t exactly what I expected. If you thought it would be outright war in a small town between mannequin makers then you couldn’t be more wrong. Cliffe’s novel was instead more about the men, what made them who they were and he approached their characters from totally differing angles.

The Carpenter, Gabriel Doig didn’t come across as particularly charismatic but that didn’t matter as Cliffe sent him on the most wonderful adventure. It was an adventure that tested his strength, showcased his strong character, his inert sense of survival. What I loved more than anything was his passion for wood, the way Cliffe described how it almost came alive as he worked his magic. The intricacies of wood carving was utterly fascinating, the imagery wonderful.

Colston Kemp was the polar opposite, a man who lacked the passion, the magical touch with wood, his alternative one I found shocking and brutal. Cliffe chose to use his twin children Eugen and Avis to tell his story and you could see how his misguided passion and fearsome will to succeed was reflected in their actions. You felt sorry for them, for their naivety, their trust and utter belief in a father who they thought wanted only the best for them.

Yet you knew Kemp was driven by grief for his dead wife, a grief that perhaps unhinged him, no one there to question his plan and put him back on track. It didn’t make me feel anything but disgust for him, frustration at his actions and I read on in hope that he would at some point redeem himself.

What struck me most about The Mannequin Makers was Cliffe’s wonderful ability to portray the scenes in his story, the imagery vivid and complex, his narratives many layers showcased the best and worst of human nature.

It had everything you look for in a novel, historical detail, a spot of intrigue, adventure and survival and it was a damn fine novel.

I would like to thank Tom Clayton at Melville House for a copy of The Mannequin Makers to read and review.

About the author

Craig Cliff is the author of the novels Nailing Down the Saint and The Mannequin Makers, and the story collection A Man Melting, which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. In addition to fiction, Craig has published poetry, essays and reviews, been a newspaper columnist and judged poetry and short story competitions. His work has been translated into German, Spanish and Romanian and he participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program in 2013. He was Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 2017 and currently lives in Wellington with his young family.

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