Published by Pan Macmillan-Picador, October 2021 | Fiction, Australian, Women, Historical
True to form, Hannah Kent’s intense, lyrical prose is utterly immersive in her new novel, Devotion.
At its heart, Devotion is a delicate love story between two young women – the narrator Hanne and her soulmate Thea.
“The testimony of love is the backbone of the universe,” Hanne begins. “It is the taproot from which all stories spring.”
Lifting the intensity of their story is the historical context in which it’s entwined. The teenagers meet in 1836, not long before their families – part of a small, Prussian-based community of Old Lutherans – flee from religious persecution to the other side of the world, destined for the young colony of South Australia.
Readers of Kent’s two previous acclaimed novels – Burial Rites and The Good People – will recognise parallels in Devotion. All three novels are set in the 1820-30s albeit in very different parts of the world, each with an almost mystical vibe as Kent explores the heavy prevailing influence of religion, superstition, folklore and the supernatural.
All three are also profoundly shaped by grief and death.
Kent’s 2013 debut, Burial Rites, tells the haunting story of Icelandic woman Agnes Magnusdottir, as she awaits her execution in 1829, the last person condemned to death in her country.
Three years later, Kent released The Good People, inspired by the 1826 case of a young Irish boy Michael Leahy, drowned by women attempting to rid his body of fairies.
Death also permeates Devotion and, at the novel’s midpoint, plays a decisive role in steering the story into a completely new realm.
It happens during the Lutheran migrants’ long ship voyage – a journey that is so masterfully depicted by Kent that you can almost feel the travellers’ physical discomfort, their fears and exposure to peril, along with their wonderment at the ocean’s magnificence. Their vessel, The Kristi, is described by Hanne as “almost a living thing”:
“The Kristi carried not only the weight of our bodies, our belongings, but the weight of something heavier, something living and soulful. Timelessness and temporality together, somehow knotted in the cord of the wood.“
Hailing from South Australia herself, Kent drew inspiration for her fictionalised account from the real voyage of the Zebra from Hamburg to Australia, an arduous six-month journey for 187 German Lutherans, who settled in 1838 around 30 kilometres east of Adelaide, naming their new community Hahndorf (fictionalised by Kent as Heiligendorf).
In Kent’s reimagined journey, passengers inevitably perish, succumbing to disease such as scurvy and typhus – and this sets a new dynamic for the second half of the novel, infusing it with magical realism.
While at times I felt Kent's lyricism overwhelming and some of the supernatural devices of the second half contrived when compared to the vividly imagined plausibility of its first half, the joy of this novel is Kent’s mastery of her characters and the details of their lives.
Besides the irresistible protagonists, Kent provides a vibrancy to all members of their community, from the imperious head pastor imposing his beliefs, through to Hanne’s dear twin brother who deeply mourns her loss, deftly navigating each character’s struggles.
It also provides fascinating insights into the settlement of Lutheran refugees in South Australia, including their encounters with the traditional owners of the land they took, the Peramangk people.
Devotion is a raw, rich, immersive, often surprising novel, written with prosody that sings.
Devotion, by Hannah Kent
Pan Macmillan - Picador
432pp, PB $32.99
Thanks to Netgalley and Pan Macmillan Australia for the early copy.