Lessons of an age-old heart
By NA Sulway Tartarus Press, 352pp, £35
NIKE Sulway has written a mesmerising, unsettling fairytale for adults. Her book is the story of a woman constructed from metal, wood and flesh. This woman, Rupetta, is built in rural France in 1619 and, through a miracle, is bestowed with sentience and immortality.
Rupetta must be wound by her creator, Eloise. The act of winding involves more than inserting and turning a key. Eloise must open Rupetta’s chest and use her hand to cradle Rupetta’s four-chambered heart. This powers Rupetta and links the two with an intimate bond. This merging of consciousness is passed down to Eloise’s female descendants, who in turn assume the post of Rupetta’s Wynder.
Rupetta’s relationships with her Wynders, some false, some true, are described across the course of centuries. In other people, she inspires astonishment as well as admiration, reverence and envy. People will lie, cheat and kill to be her Wynder in the hope of gaining control of her and influence over others.
As she becomes more widely known, Rupetta becomes an unwitting catalyst for change. Chaos and bloodshed ensure as the established order is overthrown in her name and people vie to create something new. The result is a transformation of society and the emergence of a radical new system of belief. By the 20th century, life is governed by the Fourfold Rupettan Law: Life is Death The Earth is a Grave The Body is a Machine for Dying Knowledge is the path to Immortality
Rupetta also becomes a thing to be emulated. Her most loyal followers replace their organic hearts with a copy of Rupetta’s. These believers, who seek a ‘‘ meshing’’ of their meat with Rupetta’s immortality, cast their opponents as heretics and subject them to torture and death. Meanwhile, Rupetta is forgotten as the movement she inspires leaves her behind.
These world-changing events are significant to the story but they form only a backdrop to the close relationships and themes that are the focus of this book. The themes include loss and love, the relationship between parents and children, and what it means to be whole and human. The book is also a meditation on knowledge and history and our capacity to fully grasp the truth. If the book has a weakness, it is that the author has sought to cover too much in a single novel.
The story is played out in two plotlines. One arc details Rupetta’s birth through to the present day, while the second is located in the present in telling the story of Henri, a young woman who aspires to the highest calling, that of a historian with a Rupettan heart. Each arc is well told and at the end they join neatly to form a seamless narrative.
The book is notable not just for its original story but its form. It is written in an unusual, lilting style that somehow manages to capture the emotional resonance of the scene, whether it be happy, melancholy, earnest or reflective. The style brings to mind a children’s fairytale. Sulway writes, for example, of Henri in love as being ‘‘ smeared with happiness like a child who has filled her arms with kittens, and rolls down the hill and spins and spins until she is dizzy and tangled and skinless and bright’’.
Rupetta is a rich, complex work wrapped in an engaging style. It is not a book that can be pigeonholed. It has elements of fantasy, romance and even gothic horror in the mould of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At the same time, it contains lengthy discussions on questions such as the meaning of knowledge. It is unlike any other book that you will read this year. If nothing else, it deserves a wide readership for the author’s bold ambition and striking feat of imagination.
Sulway has achieved something remarkable with Rupetta. This is not surprising given her record as a successful author of books for adults and children. In 2000, she won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for best emerging Queensland author for her novel The Bone Flute. It was published under the name Nicole A. Bourke and was subsequently shortlisted in the Commonwealth Writers Awards. Under the name Nike Bourke, she also wrote What the Sky Knows, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. Rupetta is a like work of great skill that deserves similar praise.
Nike Sulway plays on elements of fantasy, romance and gothic horror