When a young Maori man arrives on the morning train one day in 1903--announcing the imminent visit of a famous strongman--the entire town of Marumaru, New Zealand turns out to greet him, except one. Colton Kemp, a department store window-dresser, is at home, watching his beloved wife die in premature childbirth. Tormented by grief, he hatches a plan to make his name and thwart his rival, the silent and gifted Carpenter: over the next sixteen years he will raise his newborn twins in secrecy and isolation, to become human mannequins in the world's most lifelike window display.
In the final section, another change of narrator and a jump forward to 1970s Australia bring about the denouement. This is the only place Cliff seems to falter; he has much to reveal about his new storyteller while also needing to wrangle a sprawling plot. Events unspool perhaps a little slowly in the beginning of this section and then rather too quickly toward the end, leaving the characters’ motivations, and the truths we are eager to learn, somewhat occluded.
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.
It is 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.