In the seventeenth century, in the French countryside, an automaton called Rupetta is created. She has a psychic connection with her Wynder, the woman of the family who created her, who reaches into her chest to touch the mechanics of her silver and leather heart, and for whom she feels a great and powerful love. But when the last of the Wynders and her daughter have died, Rupetta sits decaying, looking out at the apple tree in the garden while the house falls to pieces around her (time both speeds up and slows down when you are not alive). Then a new Wynder comes, a false Wynder who takes Rupetta on journey to Rus, and to the Empress Kassia’s court, where a new devotion is born. Rupetta’s mechanical heart is recreated for a new Wynder, and the devotion turns into an austere and uncompromising religion of Obanites, spread by its Penitents who have trained their bodies to accept mechanical hearts, and will live forever.
In the modern era, the Obanites have established themselves as the ruling colonial force that calmly takes over the lands of those who oppose their doctrine of the everlasting heart. History is their main teaching, since the Rupettan Annal is infallible, and History must be learned as an adjunct to the Annal, not as a false interpretation of it. And in that time a young postgraduate Historian called Henri takes up residence in the Stacks (she has no money for anywhere to live, since she must eat to study), and she begin to find records that don’t agree with the Annals. Are they false doctrine, or are they part of the Rupettan story that the Penitents wish to be forgotten?
Nike Sulway’s long and intricately patterned novel is a rich feast of ideas. She tells the story in two voices: Rupetta’s own, moving forward from the seventeenth century, intersectioned by Henri’s story, telling her life as an impatient student, a forgetful daughter, and an uncertain researcher, discovering a hopeless love for the botanist Miri in the neighbouring college. Their stories unfold around each other, so that the novel’s two intertwining voices resonate in each other’s stories, and reveal secrets to the reader, chapter by chapter.
It’s a beautifully designed reading experience, but I think this novel is too long. Reading this began with curiosity, but turned into a chore, a task to be completed because I wanted very much to find out more about the world, rather than listen to more of Henri’s philosophy, or her painful self-questioning as she struggles with loyalties that go against her natural inclinations.
Rupetta won the 2013 James Tiptree Jr Award, and the 2014 Norma K Hemmings Award, and rightly so. Sulway is an excellent writer, creating memorable characters with delicate details rooted in strength, and her breadth of vision is impressive. Some of the necessary joining-up details, for example exactly how Rupetta’s heart made the psychic connection with the Wynder, eluded me (perhaps I read those parts too fast). While I loved the conception of the mechanical nightingale and all that it signifies in this world and in ours, I needed to know more about how it could think and decide for itself. Much like the other automatons, there is far more going on under their surfaces than we can know, possibly too much.
The dominant feature of Rupetta’s world remains hidden, right under our noses, because Sulway’s storytelling skills keep us from noticing that this is a gender-reversed world, in which women have all the good roles, and men are a minority. A cherished minority, with agency, and social functions, and all the freedom they could want, but they are not the dominant sex. And how refreshing that is in a novel that doesn’t make a big thing of it, that simply presents it as a background fact, and allows the action to unfold with that major social difference as a basis.