Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Picador Australia
First Published: 26 October 2021
“Love runs through her like a seam of gold. It runs through me, too, we are illuminated.”
I will start by saying that I was given an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own. Thank you so much to Picador Australia and Netgalley for sending a copy my way!
Hanne Nussbaum is a child of nature – she would rather run wild in the forest than conform to the limitations of womanhood. In her village of Kay, Hanne is friendless and considered an oddity…until she meets Thea.
The Nussbaums are Old Lutherans, bound by God’s law and at odds with their King’s order for reform. Forced to flee religious persecution the families of Kay board a crowded, disease-riddled ship bound for the new colony of South Australia. In the face of brutal hardship, the beauty of whale song enters Hanne’s heart, along with the miracle of her love for Thea. Theirs is a bond that nothing can break.
The whale passed. The music faded.
South Australia, 1838
A new start in an old land. God, society and nature itself decree Hanne and Thea cannot be together. But within the impossible…is devotion.
Hannah Kent is one of my auto-buy authors. When I saw Devotion in upcoming releases, I added it to my TBR, no questions asked. While set in a historical period, we are not following the lives of those caught up in an infamous true crime case like her other two novels. It is a harrowing but enchanting story of love and the strive for freedom.
Devotion is set in an Old Lutheran village in Prussia during 1836 and follows Hanne Nussbaum. She is a child of nature and rebels against the structure and suffocating domestic domain of womanhood. She is odd and friendless until she meets Thea. We follow the pair as their families leave the only world, they have known their whole life to flee religious persecution as their Lutheran beliefs are against the King’s order for reform. The Old Lutheran’s have rejected the King’s union of the Protestant Churches. Hanne and Thea – along with the rest of the village – board a crowded, diseased-riddle ship bound for the new colony of South Australia.
Hannah Kent’s prose is beautifully lyrical. There are whole sections that read like poetry, especially in the descriptions of nature and the setting. Hanne’s drawn to nature. Since her village must practice their beliefs in secret and hold mass in the depths of the forest, the natural world and religion are intertwined for Hanne. The writing sucked me into the narrative. Many sections took my breath away — whether it was the depiction of the beauty of young love or at the oppressive descriptions of being cramped into an airless ship for six months.
If you are not a fan of overtly religious themes in your books, then this one might not be for you. For practising their Old Lutheran beliefs, Hanne’s village is prosecuted. Hanne’s father is one of the Church elders. An integral part of Hanne’s identity is religion. She is drawn to the hymns and hears music in nature around her. I am not religious, but I find religion endless fascinating, so the inclusion of scripture and hymns did not frustrate me. I found it helped to ground the characters into this slice of history.
The real heart of the story is Hanne and Thea. The pair meet in the forest. Hanne is expecting to be spurned by Thea, as she has been by the woman in the village. However, Thea offers Hanne acceptance. The pair soon become inseparable, and a friendship springs up fast between them. This friendship turns into a deep love as they spend endless days confined to their shared bunk in the bow of the ship.
Devotion is stepped in the culture and history. From the descriptions of the setting to outlining how the characters spend their days. It is apparent that Kent has done extensive research. Everything feels historical authentic, which is a signature of her writing. But as we move to the pilgrimage that Hanne and Thea are part of, the storyline branches from the fact and related and develops into this lush magical realism. I was not expecting this, but I adored every second.
I won’t stay too much more. I think the magic of this book comes from not knowing much and letting yourself get swept away. Devotion is a powerful exploration of love, grief and change. It will be one that resonates with me for a while. It was an absolute pleasure to read.
And because I cannot help myself, below are a few more quotes that I adore:
“Here we are, two ghosts. Telling each other we’re alive”
“If I testify, no one will hear me. Is a story unheard a story diminished?”
“How do they know how to be? I remember wondering as I ripped feathers that night. How does anyone know how to be?”
“Better a chours of birds than a choir. Better an altar of leaves. Baptise me in rainfall and crown me in sunrise. If I am still, somehow, God’s Child, let me find grace in the mysteries of bat-shriek and honeycomb.”
“I could not fall asleep that night. My body took up mind’s anxiety and I could need keep still rolling in my blanket until my beadclothes were twisted, fingers worrying at a hole in the mattress until husks spilled out across the sheet.”
“For one hallowed moment it was as it used to be, the two of us only, the entirety of the universe ending at the periphery of our curled limbs.”
“She was ever my song of songs”