‘Devotion’ by Hannah Kent

2021, 413 p.

There’s often quite a wait between Hannah Kent books, but when they arrive, patience is rewarded. Both her earlier, well-acclaimed books Burial Rites and The Good People are historical fiction, both are exquisitely researched and both tease out the sense of being ‘different’ and alienated from other people. Her most recent book Devotion has these same qualities, although this time part of the book is set in 1830s South Australia, with a settler story that is more familiar to Australian readers than the settings of her earlier books.

The first part of the book is set in Kay, in Prussia amongst an Old Lutheran community. The creation of the Union Church by King William Frederick III, to which the community objected, had transformed this community of bible-led, devout people to become a community of Dissenters. Hanne’s father is an Elder in the church, and within the bounds of a strict, religious upbringing, Hanne feels awkward, ungainly and at odds with the other young girls who look forward to marriage and children within the church community. When a new family moves into the community, she is immediately drawn to Thea, a girl of her own age. Thea’s family had sold everything in the hope of being able to emigrate to avoid persecution, only to have the offer of emigration withdrawn, leaving them to start over again. When the offer of emigration to South Australia comes to the village of Kay, the congregation needs to decide if they will take the risk to sell everything too, unsure whether their passports will be denied at the last moment too.

The book, then, is set in three parts: Prussia in 1836, the ocean journey to South Australia in 1836 and South Australia in 1838 in a Hahndorf-like Lutheran agricultural village. The reviews that I have read of this book have been careful to avoid spoilers, and I shall too.

There have been criticisms that the book and its language is over-blown, but I just let myself be swept along with that. Others have chided the author for an overly-benign settler narrative but I have read several fictional and non-fiction tellings of early white settlements that are likewise marked with an early wariness and accommodation that was obliterated by later betrayal atrocities and massacres. (I’m thinking of That Deadman Dance; Dancing with Strangers). Others have criticized that the ‘goodies’ are too good and the ‘baddies’ are too bad. I didn’t care: there is something fable-like about the story, and archetypes go with the territory.

I just loved this book. It reminded me a 20th century film that you will no doubt recognize as soon as you reach half-way through the book, but infused with innocence and longing and a love for country. It has a striking cover too – no corsetted back-view of a woman here- that reflects the story beautifully. To be honest, I didn’t want the story to stop. I bet they’ll make a film of this one, too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

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