Marooned by Obsession in Craig Cliff’s “The Mannequin Makers”

The novel stakes a similar position, the sea ever present, a potent reminder of the vastness of the planet, of the inevitability of change, of the indifference of nature to our paltry lives and plans. To this New Zealand writer, Mannequin Makers feels like a very New Zealand novel in its obsession with the cruelty of the elements and the unrelenting beauty and bleakness of the landscape. Her debut poetry collection Possibility of Flight was published in New Zealand in 2015. In transporting us to Australia for the final, modern part of his tale, Cliff keeps the New Zealand landscape firmly in the dark and bitter past, when life was one long battle for survival. Marumaru at the turn of the 20th century is a backwater town not yet touched by progress, so it’s tempting to see Colton’s barbaric actions against his children as a product of the time. New Zealand is a set of islands, so the sea is always at the edges of the frame. Instantly, we are deep in Gothic horror: small-town New Zealand, hidden desires, lies, trapped children, an ominous rivalry, and mounting tension. ¤
The short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction of Auckland, New Zealand–based writer Heidi North has appeared widely in journals and anthologies in New Zealand and internationally. When Gabriel ends up a castaway, the land he encounters is uncompromisingly harsh. Instead, readers are artfully immersed in the worlds Cliff conjures with such skill — the sawdust and sweat of mid-18th-century Scotland, the salt spray and sea-sickness of travel on the merciless open ocean, the crippling hunger and impending madness of life as a castaway with only a wooden figurehead for company. A grim voyage on a clipper ship in the late 1880s results in the frantic desperation of life as a castaway when he washes up on Antipodes Island, 400 miles from the nearest city, Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island. The story is structured with four interlinked parts, each of which is distinct and tightly crafted. It is a strikingly vivid tale full of startling yet believable twists anchored by the compassionate portrayal of lives overrun with obsession and the drive for perfection. FEBRUARY 24, 2018
VIOLENCE AND CRUELTY seethe beneath the surface of The Mannequin Makers, the debut novel from New Zealand writer Craig Cliff (A Man Melting), and none of its main players are likely to escape unscathed. In Marumaru 15 years on, she details the twins’ life of isolation and intense physical training, which culminates in their performance in “the window.”
The third part, “The Carpenter’s Tale,” allows the mute Carpenter — real name Gabriel Doig — to tell the story of how he came to be in Marumaru. In contrast, the contemporary setting of Collaroy Beach is all sunshine and relaxed ease — the darkness is all on the inside. The opening section, “Welcome to Marumaru,” details how Colton, inspired by real-life German bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, becomes obsessed with physical perfection. The novel’s final section, “The Mannequin Speaks,” takes place in the 1970s and is Eugen’s story. Cliff has evidently done a large amount of historical research for this novel, but the prose is not weighed down by the details. In the first three parts, the characters struggle uselessly against the impartial, brutal elements. The novel ends on a note of touching, bittersweet acceptance of the perils of the human struggle. Avis and Eugen long to see the water, a mystical force they have heard about but have never been allowed to experience. Through a lens distorted by time and blurry with regret, Eugen, now an aging lifesaver at Collaroy Beach in Sydney, Australia, fills in the chilling blanks of what became of Colton, Avis, and the Carpenter. In Marumaru, a small town on the east coast of New Zealand, at the turn of the 20th century, mannequin maker Colton Kemp is caught in a bitter rivalry with the town’s only other mannequin maker, a sinister, mute man dressed in old-fashioned suits who’s known only as “The Carpenter.” Colton accidentally gouges a chuck of skin from his forefinger, and not long after, his wife Louisa bleeds to death after unexpectedly going into labor at the washing line. Louisa’s death leaves newborn twins Eugen and Avis in the care of the distraught Colton, who channels his grief into obsession. By doing this, Cliff never breaks the magic by bringing in modern-day New Zealand, which readers may have found jarring. The second section, “A Mannequin’s Tale,” is told from the point of view of Avis through her diary entries. It is an original and gripping read, a rich book by an accomplished writer. And years later, Eugen will end up spending his adult years patrolling the waves, doing penance for his wrongs by keeping people safe. The author’s visceral descriptions of eating raw penguin flesh are not for the squeamish. Like the young “mannequins” Avis and Eugen, the landscape too bears the unmistakable marks of colonization. The story opens with blood and a sense of impending doom that never fades. Narratively, Mannequin Makers is an ambitious first novel. The intensity of the landscape is integral to the book’s plot. However, Sydney’s Collaroy Beach in the ’70s, with its easy ebb and flow of surfers and dog walkers and sun-seekers, Eugen’s wandering eye taking in the young men flexing their tanned muscles and scantily clad girls on the sand, reminds us that humans’ lust for physical perfection remains unchanged. He keeps the children shut away from the world and trains them to become the perfect “mannequins.” Once they turn 16, they will be released from their confined world into “the window,” where they will be on storefront display. The story ranges from 1859 to 1970, transporting readers from Scotland to New Zealand to Australia with stops in between. Gabriel spends time at sea, then finds himself marooned by it. What elevates the novel from other Gothic tales is the breadth of time it covers. This forces readers to piece together questionable information from multiple sources until a picture emerges of four imperfect human beings striving to do good but swerving off task, with terrible consequences. Colton’s story is the only one told using third-person narration, a distancing Cliff likely employed to assure readers that they are getting the full truth. The sentence-level craft Cliff applied to his stories, however, is equally evident in the novel. He must take it by force, much as he and the other characters — even the ones made of wood — were forcibly molded into something else. The author’s intention may also have been to deny Colton the same sympathy readers are likely to feel for the other main characters, who get to narrate their own stories. As a result, the first-person narrators are naturally more compelling, but they’re also less reliable. But labeling Mannequin Makers a “New Zealand novel” is not meant to ghettoize it. The short stories in Cliff’s collection A Man Melting, which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, have a wacky sense of the surreal, whereas The Mannequin Maker, his first novel and American debut, has a Gothic, less comedic edge. Beginning in Scotland in 1859, Gabriel learns the family trade practiced by his father and grandfather, eventually becoming a carver of ships’ figureheads in River Clyde.