Colton Kemp, window dresser in Marumaru, New Zealand, owes everything to his wife Louisa; when she dies giving birth to twins, he loses not only his inspiration, but his ability to connect with the world. Sixteen years later, it’s 1918, and he has raised his children to be living mannequins; as such they captivate the townspeople, particularly Kemp’s talented rival, a mute known only as The Carpenter. What follows is the slow-burning fallout of impulse, as characters stumble blindly through their own illusions, some searching for, some staunchly refusing “the simple connections…screaming out to be made.” As the twins’ innocence and their father’s egomania lead to ever-more devastating complications, we get swept up in a tale of secrets and survival that spans a generation, revealing little by little the lengths to which we will go to protect ourselves from the truth.

In Craig Cliff’s world everything breathes, from floorboards that “rumbled like an empty stomach,” to a figurehead so lifelike she is given lines of dialogue. He dresses loneliness in its most dramatic garb, lacing it with vice, virtue, and dispassion, and casting it all in the gnawing shadow of grief: for lost loved ones, for rash decisions, for the isolation that comes with victimhood. In The Mannequin Makers Cliff molds his narrative with tools as various and original as The Carpenter’s, ultimately revealing just how easy it can be to mistake living flesh for carved wood, daydreams for reality, and silence for unpardonable guilt.

Milkweed Editions.