Lessons of an age-old heart

Ru­petta

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­orge Wil­liams Ge­orge Wil­liams,

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

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