Book review: Devotion, Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s stunning third book is a queer love story that transcends time and space.

Fourteen-year-old Hanne Nussbaum does not possess an intuitive knowinghow-to-be, unlike the other girls, and is more likely to imagine being a pig than to worry about the state of her fingernails. Hanne wants to be included but prefers being left alone, leaving her perpetually isolated in the close-knit Prussian village of Kay. Her wildness, misunderstood by those around her, is not a quality conducive to marriageability; a big deal for Old Lutherans in 1836. Her parents believe that if she would only submit to tradition she would find happiness, but Hanne knows otherwise. She would prefer to remain a child – free to explore the woods and swamps of Prussia – where she can hear the rain singing to the earth, and revel in the synesthesiac sounds of sunlight hitting leaves. 

When the Eichenwalds move to Kay, Hanne is drawn to their daughter, Thea, and over the next two years, their friendship blossoms into something sacred. Around Thea, Hanne feels seen. Understood. Although she lacks the language to quantify certain aspects of herself, Hanne isn’t immune to the impact of her overwhelming feelings. 

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Entering the second half of the book is like passing through a heavy fog. The people of Kay, seeking freedom from religious persecution, brave a harrowing six month journey in a coffin-like ship. And then… 

Hanne suffers from an irreversible disconnect between cause and effect, becoming stuck in a nightmare she can’t wake from. This is a time of dislocation, untethering and unbecoming, beneath the raw enormity of grief. Through Hanne’s heart-wrenching perspective, readers experience the lostness of living invisibly and the devastation of realising what might have existed instead. The third and final act illuminates a stolen life, in which distance and time are no match for a love as strong as death. Emotion spills from these pages like saltwater filling the bow of a squall-soaked ship. Any caginess regarding the latter two thirds of the book is entirely intentional; this is far too good a story to spoil. 

Kent’s exquisite writing speaks to readers’ souls of everyday-beauty and the heartbreak of mundane joy. Although it begins in Prussia’s rich forests and explores the cold spray of the ocean, the book ends in the dry bushland of South Australia. Kent’s representation of colonial history seeps into the story from an unusual narrative space that neither denies nor condones, Australia’s brutal colonial past. Religion, or at the very least, faith, plays a large part in this genre-mish-mash of visceral literature, with a purity so real it hurts.

The changing landscape of bush-turned-farmland explores the euphoria of being at one with nature, while highlighting the consequences of unintended damage. This unforgettable story will resonate with anyone who has ever loved or lost. Avoid mascara.

Devotion by Hannah Kent 
Publisher: Picador Australia
ISBN: 9781760556457 
Format: Paperback 
Pages: 432pp
Publication date: 26 October 2021
RRP: $32.99

Nanci Nott is an Australian writer who believes in dismantling traditional pedagogy in parenting and education, for the purpose of raising freethinking, compassionate, world-changers.