Split into four interlinking segments told from different perspectives, Craig Cliff’s gothic debut novel The Mannequin Makers is categorised by an eerie stillness. After his wife Louisa suddenly goes into labour at the washing line and bleeds to death, department store window dresser Colton Kemp is left to face the prospect of raising their twins without her. Essentially dumping the newborns on Louisa’s young sister Flossie in their first hours of life, Kemp goes to watch a performance by visiting strongman Eugen Sandow and is struck by a terrible, brilliant idea. He will raise the twins – Eugen and Avis – in total isolation, training them to become perfect living mannequins who don’t so much as blink.
In Part Two, Avis’ diary entries tell of a stultifying life shut away from the world, preparing for ‘the window’ where she and Eugen will soon be on display. Their father has lead the twins to believe that this is customary for meeting potential suitors in their turn of the century New Zealand town, and that their lifestyle is shared by all young people in the Southern Hemisphere hoping to enter polite society. When the day comes for the twins to take up their positions and Avis sees the local children playing on the other side of the glass, her father tells her they are orphans who will only know lives without laughter and joy when they grow up. Avis feels for them, but at the same time longs to be free the way that they are. Her life is now confined to the shop window and a minuscule locked room as she waits for the day when she still believes she will finally find a husband and begin her adult life.
After a shocking incident at the store the novel turns on its heel again, taking the form of an explanatory memoir from Kemp’s mute rival known primarily as ‘The Carpenter’. Here we see Avis begin to learn the truth of the world before the last quarter of the novel finally reveals the full story, as Eugen Kemp seeks to assuage his lifelong guilt for the awful events of the past in 1970s Australia.
The Mannequin Makers is a striking story of loss and obsession, betrayal and love – a sprawling gothic novel that strikes at the dark heart of human behaviour.
Early reviews for The Mannequin Makers have been very positive:
“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.” — Charlotte Graham, New York Times
“[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. It is an original and gripping read, a rich book by an accomplished writer.”— Heidi North, LA Review of Books
“New Zealander Cliff makes a stunning American debut with a story about obsession gone horribly wrong… This is a spellbinding and original tale, rife with perilous journeys, fascinating historical detail, and memorable characters.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A grim and glorious meditation on the cruelty of fate.”— Kirkus
The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff is out 6th June from Melville House UK (9781911545293, p/b, £8.99)