I could start this post with yet another protestation that I’m not an historical fiction fan but I’m not entirely sure that’s true, particularly after listing Imogen Hermes Gower’s The Mermaid and the Mrs Hancock amongst my books of 2018. Perhaps I should adopt the term Craig Cliff mentions in his acknowledgements – romanzi storici – although once he’d got down to writing The Mannequin Makers he was no longer sure it fit the bill. Beginning at the turn of 1902, Cliff’s debut takes us up to 1974 with its tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before.
Colton Kemp lives in the small New Zealand town of Marumaru, a window dresser for Donaldson’s, one of two local department stores, who’s turned his hand to mannequin making. On New Year’s Eve 1902, his wife gives birth to twins losing her own life in the process. Colton is distraught, unable to speak of her death lest it become real to him. That same night, the German strongman makes an unscheduled appearance in the town. As Colton watches Sandow showcasing total control of his muscles, a plan emerges from the madness of his grief which will materialise sixteen years later. It will be the culmination of his intense rivalry with Gabriel Doig, known as The Carpenter, whose uncannily lifelike models adorn Hercus and Barling’s windows. Gabriel has his own story to tell. A ships’ carver from Scotland, he was taken on as a carpenter on the Agathos when his business finally failed. Scenting fresh meat, the crew do their worst, strapping him to the ship’s mast with Vengeance, his precious figurehead. When a storm hits, Gabriel finds himself cast away, surviving but losing his voice. He’s lived in Marumaru for two decades before a series of tableaux in Donaldson’s windows catch his eye. Can it possibly be what he thinks it is?
This is such an inventive, imaginative piece of storytelling; not just one story but several nested within each other. Gabriel’s story is almost a novel in itself, yet Cliff adroitly weaves it into Colton’s and his twins’, revealing the way in which one man can tragically misinterpret another’s motives. Madness and grief haunt this novel which has more than a touch of the gothic but moments of humour brighten it, and its narrative is gripping. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction which offered me some much-needed distraction from my Brexit woes although opening the book to find this quote prefacing Part One felt horribly apt:
We run carelessly to the precipice after we have put something before us to prevent us from seeing it