Oh dear. I initially thought this novel was a fabulous historical fiction set in the Antipodes, à la Oscar and Lucinda or The Luminaries. But then the story began to lose momentum two-thirds of the way through before falling apart completely in the final act.
Ooh, but the beginning is so, so good! It is New Year’s Eve, 1902, in the quiet town of Marumaru, New Zealand. Colton Kemp designs window displays for one of the two department stores in town. Although he dedicates himself to work on his mannequins, he is not very good at woodcarving and the results never match his imagination. His rival, a silent man known simply as The Carpenter, is, of course, more talented and works for the other, more successful store. To compound Kemp’s bad luck, his beloved wife suddenly collapses and dies after giving birth to twins.
Strangely, Kemp doesn’t alert anyone to the death of his wife or the birth of his children. Perhaps to distract himself, he wanders alone into town, where everyone is aflutter at the impending visit of the famous strongman Eugen Sandow. The next night, Kemp manages to catch Sandow’s performance – essentially a sales pitch for a workout system – and is struck with an idea that will finally see him triumph over the Carpenter. Let me just say that there are several references to Pygmalion and The Winter’s Tale.
I was really enjoying this book until Craig Cliff decided to delve into the Carpenter’s backstory. And I’m sorry, but I didn’t find the Carpenter very interesting! Other characters that seemed like they would be important – a young Maori man, Kemp’s best friend, a neighbor’s daughter – are just left fallen by the wayside. So my interest began to wane at this point. And then a trope I can’t stand cropped up in the last part and I was just done. (spoiler follows)It was twincest. I find incest squicky at the best of times, but I am especially tired of that particular variety.
I am actually kind of sad. I thought I would love this! I was loving this! Maybe I’ll pretend I only read the first third and conveniently forget the rest.