Four hundred years ago, in a small town in rural France, a young woman creates the future in the shape of Rupetta. Part mechanical, part human, Rupetta’s consciousness is tied to the women who wind her. In the years that follow she is bought and sold, borrowed, forgotten and revered. By the twentieth century, the Rupettan four-fold law rules everyone’s lives, but Rupetta—the immortal being on whose existence and history those laws are based—is the keeper of a secret that will tear apart the world her followers have built in her name. The closeness between women is mirrored in the relationship between Henri and Miri, a woman at the college with whom she fall in love, and also between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters – a heritage of affection that loops down over the centuries.
This review is presented as part of my commitment in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015. I purchased this book.
In 2013, Nike Sulway won the Tiptree Award for her novel Rupetta, becoming the first Australian to win the award. Rupetta was also shortlisted for the Aurealis award for best science fiction novel, and won the Norma K. Hemming Award in 2014.
I purchased an ebook of Rupetta soon after the Tiptree win, and it was left lingering in my virtual to-be-read pile for too long (along with way too many books). This year, I’m trying to make inroads into reading through my to-be-read mountains, and Rupetta was a good place to start.
And I am now kicking myself for not reading it sooner. I actually almost wasn’t going to write a full review of this book, simply because I wasn’t certain that anything I could write would truly reflect how achingly beautiful this book is. I fell deep in love with Sulway’s extraordinary prose from the first page, and deeper still with Rupetta, Henri and their world. As soon as I finished the ebook, I hunted down a physical copy as well, just so I can have this gorgeous book on my shelf.
This book isn’t going to be for every reader. The prose is dense, oftentimes reading more like poetry than anything else, and the storyline isn’t linear. Each chapter feels very much as though it is a cog in part of a grand machine, like Rupetta herself. I feel very much that this is a book that will benefit from much reading and rereading in order to see the full pattern of that machine.
Women are the central focus of this book. Rupetta was created by a woman, and requires a psychic bond with a female Wynder in order to run. Generation through generation we follow the Wynders, each of their stories unique and compelling. Their bond to Rupetta, and Rupetta’s very existence, shapes the society around them.
The story is told in alternating chapters, one from Rupetta’s point of view following her history, and the next from Henri’s point of view. Henri longs to be an Obanite Historian like her mother, to be Transformed by having her heart replaced with a clockwork version. We follow with her as she rebels against her father’s wishes and enrols. As she delves deeper into history, she discovers more about the truth of Rupetta and the Obanites, as well as of her mother’s life.
None of the magic in this world is explained – not how Rupetta came to be, not how Rupetta bonds with her Wynders. I suspect this will frustrate some readers, but for me, the mystery of it only added to the enchantment of the book. My only real issue is that the ending didn’t quite draw together completely, but I feel that the sheer beauty of Sulway’s writing and the strength of the world and main characters more than makes up for this.
Sulway writes in an elaborate filigree which is not quite like anything else I’ve read. The closest I can come is comparing her to authors like Catherynne M. Valente and Sophia Samatar. Rupetta is fully deserving of the awards it has won, and I look forward to Sulway’s future books.