In a Prussian forest in 1836, a young woman listens to the music she can hear pouring from the walnut tree she rests beneath. Different notes come from the ground beneath her, and the creek ahead, combining to form a symphony only she can hear. It's the first sign of a mysterious energy that will become the defining force in her life, and in her death.
Hanne is the daughter of devout Old Lutherans, who are persecuted in their home country, their churches locked and pastor exiled. Their community worships secretly in the forests around their village, and when an opportunity arises to leave for a new life in South Australia, they board a ship for the six-month journey without looking back.
But the oceans hold grave danger, and the journey she embarks on is not the one Hanne or her family expected.
Devotion is the latest novel from bestselling Australian author Hannah Kent. Kent's catalogue to date has included two stunning works of historical fiction, Burial Rites and The Good People, both of which were meticulously researched and rich with detail of the people and times they explored. Devotion builds on Kent's record by delivering a novel that is partly grounded in history, but is otherwise full of wild imagination and leaps of magic realism.
Ultimately a love story, Devotion marks Hanne's journey into womanhood with the arrival of a stranger to her hometown in Prussia. Despite having grown up in a tightknit religious community, Hanne is lonely and has few friends amongst the villagers. When Thea arrives with her family seeking a new home, she is the first friend Hanne has who truly understands her, and who doesn't dismiss the strange affinity Hanne has with nature and the world around her. Thea's own mother practices the healing methods of the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, which are feared as "witchcraft" by their community. But whether works of God, or the results of witchery, the magic of the Books are one part of what ties Thea and Hanne together. Stronger than any external force, however, is their love for each other, which they try and ignore but can't deny is between them.
Devotion grapples with these multifaceted themes deftly and with empathy and sensitivity to the various intersections within them. Kent asks questions of what defines gender and sexuality, both in the time of the novel's setting, but also today - the core feelings of love, belonging and hope in the novel are universal and relatable.
Kent paints a picture of colonial Australia through the lens of its early immigrants, showing the hardship and complexity of the settling of this land by exiles from Prussia, who, regardless of their experiences of persecution, are themselves complicit in the displacement of First Nations people who never ceded their country.
These complexities are given room to unfurl on the page, against the backdrop of Hanne's devotion and love for Thea, which is forever out of her reach. The use of magic realism as a tactic for exploring what was, at that time in history, impossible to pursue in ordinary life for same-sex couples, is a clever way to give voice to the many untold stories of sexually and gender diverse people in cultures across time.
Kent's writing is thoroughly immersive. The worlds and communities she creates are so vivid that the more significant imaginative leaps are easy to follow, and ring truer than expected. As a reader who is thoroughly skeptical of all magic realism in novels, Devotion gently convinced me of the possibility of the unknown forces it examined, without feeling false.
You get the sense that every single word has been chosen for a reason, but the writing doesn't feel laboured at all - instead, there is a precision to the prose and a strength to the imagery that makes each new environment Kent creates shine on the page; from the leafy, damp forests of Prussia and the small stone cottages within them; to the roiling, grim decks of the cargo ship taking Hanne and her community to Australia; through to the light-filtered bush of South Australia, rippling with wildlife.
Hanne is a beguiling narrator, and her transition from girl to woman flows beautifully. The ongoing conversation in the novel about religion, the role is plays in both building community and potentially destroying it, is a highlight of what is a book packed with fascinating questions that Kent poses to the reader without forcing any particular conclusion.
I wished I could stay in the worlds of the characters Kent has carefully built, watching as their community kept changing and evolving in their new home. Every character is given the opportunity to have depth and development - there are no straw men or women in Devotion, with even the problematic characters having their motivations and choices engaged empathetically.
This is a novel I will undoubtedly return to again and again, to unpeel another layer of meaning each time.
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