Competition between rival window dressers forms the foundation for this sprawling tragedy.
Acclaimed New Zealand short story writer Cliff’s harrowing debut novel (and first book to be published in the U.S.) opens outside Marumaru on Dec. 31, 1902. Window dresser Colton Kemp is carving a mannequin for use in his next display when his wife goes into labor. She gives birth to fraternal twins before dying of complications. A shellshocked Kemp leaves his sister-in-law to deal with the aftermath and walks to town. There, he catches a performance by strongman Eugen Sandow, whose perfect form and muscle control give Kemp an idea. Come December 1918, siblings Avis and Eugen have never left the family farm. According to their father, New Zealanders keep children sequestered until their 16th birthdays, at which point they’re presented to society via “the window.” Remaining perfectly still during a series of tableaux “is a test of fortitude, grace, dedication and mental strength” that allows people to assess their suitability as mates. When the curtain goes up at Donaldson’s department store, Colton Kemp’s lifelike new mannequins wow the public. Only Kemp’s rival, Gabriel Doig, suspects the horrifying truth, and his reaction significantly impacts the lives of everyone involved. Cliff’s short-fiction background looms large: each of the tale’s four sections takes place in a different era, features a different point-of-view character, and unfolds in a unique manner. Despite this unconventional structure, the book’s plot is tight, the senses of time and place are strong, and Cliff’s core themes resonate throughout.
A grim and glorious meditation on the cruelty of fate.