Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Picador Australia
Publication Date: 26 October 2021
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
Hannah Kent is back with her third novel, Devotion, and it is one that will stay with you after the cover is closed.
Devotion is not a fast-paced plot driven tale, it is a slow and luxurious exploration of characters. An exploration of a time that most of us would not be familiar with, and the way that those who were different had to live and fumble their way through that time.
The story opens in Prussia, in the small religious village of Kay. A village of Old Lutherans being persecuted for their faith but determined to retain the old faith and live in the old ways. Eventually they are offered the opportunity to take passage on a ship that will take them to the new colony of South Australia where they will be free to worship as they desire.
Hanne is our lead character and she isn’t the daughter her parents expected; she doesn’t want to marry, she doesn’t want to grow up and take on the responsibilities of a woman. Hanne wants to explore the forests and listen to the songs of nature. She is different to the other girls in the village, she knows it and they certainly don’t let her forget it. She doesn’t really have friends, except for her twin brother Matthias but the two are separated by their duties most of the time.
A new family join the community, a little bit different which sees eyes cast their way with suspicion, but they have a daughter and Hanne may have just found a friend.
There is quite a lot to this story that is not even alluded to in the blurb and I really don’t want to give away too much in my review, and that makes it difficult to know what to say. I did find it hard to really lose myself in the pages, though I also stayed up until 2.30am to finish it so it did capture my. I wonder if it’s safe to say that it captured my heart more than it captured my mind.
Thea always comes across as a little otherworldly, I think because her family is different to the other families from Kay and Thea isn’t like the girls Hanne knows. She, too, has never really made good friends and joining a new community is never easy. The girls meet and become friends, spending as much time together as possible. Exploring a friendship they have never experienced before.
The prospect of taking passage on the ship is a daunting one, for the whole village. They need to consider the uncertainty of their destination, 6 months on a ship crossing the world and the debt they need to take on to facilitate the passage. The girls also feel the pressure of knowing they can’t control the decision of their parents so being uncertain whether one will be left behind.
Six months living in the bowels of a ship not designed to house so many people, and rapidly renovated to create bunks to do so, is not a pleasant experience for anyone. There is disease, there is death, there is struggle with ship damage and rations that don’t keep their quality. Kent takes us through the journey and it’s hardships in detail. Showing us the suffering of the people so determined to build a better life in their faith.
A lot happened on the ship, a lot changed on the ship; but the villagers kept their faith and looked ever forward. The relationship they had with the sailors certainly changed from the beginning of the voyage to the end. On boarding it really seemed like these people were a paycheque but by the end they were looking to the sailors for advice and being shown different opportunities by the captain that they otherwise would never have known about.
It was after the journey that I really got immersed because they landed in South Australia, about 160 years before I did. They travelled from the less than welcoming port where they landed across the countryside on foot until they formed a settlement of their own in the hills close to Adelaide. There they came across the Peramangk people, original custodians of the land on which they settled – And the land on which I reside. I was fascinated to read of the interactions between the Old Lutherans and the Peramangk people and spent a long time trying to work out where they settled. They didn’t call their new village anything that I recognise, but I did recognise one of the businesses that sprung up before the story ended.
Devotion is very much a tale of love; of exploring love, the enduring nature of love, the things we do for love. There were some beautiful passages, and some beautiful events that celebrated love in many different forms.
The prose of Hannah Kent is evocative and luxurious in its descriptiveness. It conjures emotion as well as the illustration of what she’s trying to convey and it is hauntingly beautiful. Devotion was a book that I wanted to read right from the start, simply so I could immerse myself in the poetry of Kent’s storytelling.
Much of the beauty of Devotion is in its exploration of things that seemed impossible to the characters, of learning about the things they were yet to understand, of making sense of these emotions they didn’t think were possible.
I don’t want to say too much more because it gets into where this book is so different to the others by Kent and I’ve just had a quick flick through Goodreads reviews to try and gauge how much has and hasn’t been said, so that I can decide how much I will say. I discovered that one element of the story, a rather large element, has been described differently at almost every mention and I think that just demonstrates how much personal interpretation plays into the way people read a story.
Devotion has a very spiritual element running through it’s core and that took me away from the story at times, but I also absolutely adored it. I adored it’s conveyance of the power of love, the enduring nature of love and it’s timelessness.
All of the characters are, actually not all of the characters. The villagers who undertook the journey are faithful Old Lutherans, they believe in their faith and their God and are tackling this journey for the freedom to practice their beliefs. They have no room in their belief system for homeopathy and old ways of healing, it all stinks of witchcraft and that breeds fear, and suspicion. This was another element I found quite fascinating, and heartbreaking.
Devotion is different, it is an exquisite exploration of character, and of love. It isn’t going to sing the same song to everyone but I’m pretty certain no-one who picks it up will be disappointed.
Thanks to the Publisher for a copy of Devotion for review.
Devotion is available now where all good books are sold
Devotion was read as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2021, perhaps by the end of the year I will work out what number I’m up to.