No two waffles are uniform, and yet the word waffle creates an image that is immediately recognizable. We might quibble over whether our respective images of waffles are square or round, but the basic understanding is uncontested.
This is perhaps one reason mannequins are uncanny objects. These dummies often strive to resemble ideal (and unrealistic) aesthetic preferences of the human form. A mannequin is by nature an impostor, a false reflection in plain clothing, a chiseled block modeling the garments of sentient beings.
In his latest novel, the good-humored The Mannequin Makers, Craig Cliff appears well aware of the absurd ways in which we pose to fit certain impractical societal expectations. Indeed, mannequins become central to the rural town of Marumaru, New Zealand.
The novel begins in 1903, on the eve of a legendary strongman, Sandow, coming to Marumaru to perform. Sandow relies on an extreme routine of physical fitness that he believes would result in the same level of strength and definition for anyone with the will power to follow his example. His performance is an unexpected treat for the townsfolk, who usually find entertainment in the rivalry of two department store window-dressers, Colton Kemp and an older mute Scotsman known as The Carpenter. For Kemp, their competition lacks cordiality. It’s clear The Carpenter’s artistic skill fills him with envy, leading to myopic resentment. At times, the narrative voice falls into free indirect discourse to heighten Kemp’s mania.
“It was not a competition between two stores but between Colton Kemp and The Carpenter, ever since the day the silent sod strolled into town. Kemp had never heard him talk, though Big Jim Raymond swore The Carpenter congratulated him upon his re-election in September. What sort of affectation was it not to speak when spoken to?”
Before Sandow arrives, Kemp’s family is struck by tragedy, as his wife dies giving childbirth to twins. Fascinated by Sandow’s strength and determined to best The Carpenter, Kemp hides his children from the people of Marumaru, raising them under the belief that they must perform as mannequins in the store window on their sixteenth birthday to earn a desirable marriage proposal.
Told in four parts, the novel demonstrates Cliff’s impressive ability to switch between multiple points of view. Part two, “A Mannequin’s Tale,” told in diary entries from Kemp’s teenage daughter, Avis, examines the rigid physical routine and mental preparation she and her twin brother Eugen must endure to hold unflinching tableaus in the window. Her section is more conversational and confessional than the others. Avis and Eugen fully believe their father’s fictional explanation of how society functions, but despite her obedient confinement, Avis’s desire for freedom is clear.
“Three more nights to pass until the window. I am tempted to lay down my pen and go to bed (it has just gone seven in the evenings) to hasten our coming out, that moment when I can see and be seen. The first thing I will do once my fate has been arranged and I can step down from the window is run to the sea.”
With passages like this one, Cliff hints that Kemp’s plan is destined for failure. Avis is too smart and adventurous to not see the disparities between her father’s stories and what is happening outside the window. Avis is well-read, and her bookish curiosity grants additional energy to her diary entries, even though she is confined in dull spaces for many of them. Later in the novel, Eugen’s narration is equally engaging, intentionally blunt and a bit conceited.
However, where Cliff falters is with The Carpenter, who has a lengthy and tedious backstory. The Carpenter’s contributions to the overall arc of the novel, while full of rich descriptions of setting, are sluggish and expositional. The majority of his life story weighs down the middle third of the novel, which significantly slows the pacing and leaves the main plotline floating in the doldrums. There is much to enjoy in his biography, but at times it is exhaustive and overindulgent.
Cliff, who lives in New Zealand, altogether offers a quirky voice that falls outside of much American commercial fiction. This esotericism, along with determined prose, clever bits of timeless social critique, and an eye for setting, makes The Mannequin Makers a pleasurable read.
The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff
Published in the U.S. December 12, 2017
Craig Cliff is the author of two books: a novel, The Mannequin Makers, and the story collection, A Man Melting, which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. His work has been translated into German, Spanish, and Romanian. He is currently the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.
Help the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus make the literary world more inclusive by becoming a member, patron, or sponsor. Each option comes with its own perks and exclusive content. Click here to learn more.
Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, instructor, and PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, the Southern Review of Books, and the Southeast Review, as well as the managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Rumpus, Boulevard, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast online, Longreads, Joyland, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com