Why do men bother with churches at all when instead they might make cathedrals out of sky and water? Better a chorus of birds than a choir. Better an altar of leaves. Baptise me in rainfall and crown me with sunrise.
Devotion by Hannah Kent begins in 19th century Prussia, in a small community of Old Lutherans. Hanne is awkward, shunned by some of the other girls and often excluded from gatherings, but nature is where she finds her true home as the world around her sings to her. Then a new family arrives, bringing with it Hanne’s kindred spirit in the form of Thea, a magnetic young girl her own age, who is also looked on as an outsider by some. In the face of religious persecution, the community embark on a treacherous voyage across the turbulent seas to South Australia, on a journey that will alter Hanne and Thea’s lives forever.
This novel takes a turning point that in lesser hands mightn’t have worked, and probably won’t be for everyone, but Kent’s writing is so poetic, so mesmerising, that I threw myself in headfirst and embraced the creative leap. This is a story of young love that is as tender and gentle as it is powerful and all-consuming.
Hanne is such a multi-layered narrator, at first shy, awkward, craving an outlet for all the love she holds in her; but when the novel turns it’s corner she finds a new and overpowering freedom of sorts, resulting in some really powerful passages as she hungrily embraces this freedom. Kent’s writing about nature, and Hanne’s communion and visceral connection with nature, is extremely immersive; she has such a deft touch, writing in a style that is gentle one minute, and almost overwhelming in its strength the next. There are several captivating and endearing characters in this book and, while Hanne and Thea’s growing love is the core of the novel, Kent also beautifully and tenderly explores Hanne’s love for her family, her twin brother in particular, and the complexity of child-parent relationships.
Exploring themes of unbreakable bonds and of the many forms devotion can take; of faith, and what happens when our faith is tested, crushed and ultimately redeemed anew; of nature as a spiritual haven; of the expectations placed on women in a patriarchal society; of feelings that there are no words for until we come to fully understand them ourselves; of religious tradition and traditions harnessing the power of the natural and supernatural world; and of colonialism, and the cyclical nature of how the persecuted can become the persecutor.
Kent’s world and community building is so vivid, drawing us back completely to another time and place. This is a heartbreakingly beautiful story, written in such mesmerising prose, and I will definitely be looking to read more by Kent, who seems to specialise in very niche and original historical fiction with a rich injection of lyricism and creative twists.
Devotion was published by Pan MacMillan in February 2022. Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for my digital review copy.
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. She is the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. She is also the author of Burial Rites and The Good People.