Over at the Australian Women Writers Challenge, where I’m a contributing editor in the area of diversity, I’ve been coordinating a focus on lesbian/queer women writers over March, and this is why I’ve not really been posting here. I asked a bunch of brilliant writers to pen some guest posts for me, and also put together a list of lesbian/queer Australian women writers. In doing this, as so often happens when I write my roundups for reviews, I stumbled across a whole bunch of books I wanted to read. One of these was Nike Sulway’s Rupetta, which I had come also across on Facebook, I think via spec fic writer James Bradley who mentioned it had won the 2013 James Tiptree Jnr. award for explorations of gender in science fiction or fantasy. It has also been shortlisted for this year’s Aurelius Awards.
The narrative of Rupetta is split into two, with one strand told by Rupetta, ‘a woman — not alive and not dead, not flesh and not bone. A woman of copper and leather and steel. A woman of porcelain and wood, of pipes and barrels and cogs and wheels’ (125). Engineered in France in 1619, she forms intense relationships with Wynders, those who wind her heart. The other, slightly more contemporary strand belongs to Henriette, who is desperate to become an Historian at Oban College and be Transformed, which means having a mechanical heart replace her own.
If I were to hazard a way of describing Rupetta, she’d be a 17th century cyborg, but this analogy still can’t encompass her humanity, for her heart and feelings are very much alive. As noted on the James Tiptree Jr site, Rupetta is not ‘an android, a creature that is, etymologically, male. (The word is not gyndroid). Rupetta’s power does not come from her brain, but from her heart. Sulway has placed her construct not in the future, but the past, and made her female, created with traditionally feminine technology: sewing and weaving.’ The novel also retains an antique sensibility, with Oban College reminding me of Oxford, even though the area is named as Moreton Bay, with its ‘thick forests and slumping horizons’ (27).
As a mixture of machine and human, Rupetta must be wound to stay animated, and the descriptions of this activity were startling in their sensuality. When Elisabetta, her creator’s daughter, is left orphaned and must wynd Rupetta, Sulway writes:
I had thought she would need to ask me what to do; I had thought it would be a matter of guiding her fingers to the spot and helping her insert the key, opening the room inside me to reveal my four-chambered heart, but she needed no guidance. She slipped her hand inside me and pressed her fingertips into the chambers, testing their texture and heat and weight. She smiled, tilting her head to look at me, before she pushed her hand home, into my heart. There was a sharp white pain and then silence; apple-green (26).
Read another way, that whiteness, then the apple-green, could easily be describing an orgasm.
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. However there is also enmity and jealousy between women, which brings danger to Rupetta.
Rupetta lives forever, and once this becomes known, humans seek to appropriate her mechanics so that they, too, can become immortal through a Transformation. With immortality, however, comes time, and with time comes the myths about Rupetta that build into a cult. This is why the novel is also a story about history and how, in its telling, ‘Each truth … conceals another thousand left unspoken, unremembered’ (9). At the centre of it however are the cogs of reality, ticking like Rupetta.
I loved the ambition of this work, the scope of its telling over so long a period, and the clever twining of strands at the end. Sulway, assuming the reader’s intelligence and trusting us to remember details throughout the text, only resolves questions such as as those about the Oikos only just before the end.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been reading so many books that are the same lately, or if my reading is mirroring the turn my writing is taking, but some of the best things I’ve come across recently have been magic realism or speculative fiction, such as Merlinda Bobis’ The Fish Hair Woman and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. Either way, I’m glad that the AWW Challenge leads me astray from my usual fare and into intoxicating territory such as Sulway’s. If you’d like to be similarly diverted, you should think about signing up!
Book details: Sulway, Nike. Rupetta. Leyburn: Tartarus Press, 2013.
Purchased as an ebook from Tartarus Press.
This is my 3rd review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.