Book Review: Devotion by Hannah Kent

I’m a huge fan of Hannah Kent having read Burial Rites and The Good People. Devotion is a totally unexpected book.

This is Hanne Nussbaum’s story tracing her life with her twin brother and parents in the Lutheran village of Kay in 1836 Prussia. Hanne is a loner enjoying the company of birds and trees rather than people, until she meets Thea who with her parents moves to the town. Theirs is a frugal life filled with religious teachings until it becomes impossible to worship freely and they with most of the village begin the arduous voyage to freedom in South Australia in 1838.

Essentially this is an obsessional fantasy story of love between Hanne and her friend Thea. They connect on every level to the exclusion almost of everyone else. I was shocked by the twist in the middle of the book which jarred me a little until, like Hanne, I learnt to accept. It was extremely clever as Kent makes the reader feel the emotion and disbelief just as the character would. The reader is just as bewildered and as lost as Hanne is as we come to grips with what has happened. We spend a lot of time inside her head trying to make sense of the changes she faces.

From that point, I felt it began to disintegrate a little. The love for Thea was one sided leaving the rest of her family, in particular, her twin brother behind. I struggled to buy it and the second half of the book just didn’t work in quite the same way as the first half. Hanne’s woe became repetitious and the religious component failed to fully enlighten me about the Lutheran religion. The tension around the suspicions of witchcraft by Thea’s also seemed anticlimactic.

Yet, the writing is sublime as is the description of place.  The reader is brought into the belly of the overcrowded ship, smelling the stifling air, like Hanne does. The South Australian landscape is vivid as are the people. The beginnings of the Hahndorf settlement was also enlightening.

“I found a whaling station that smelled of death and disruption, white men missing teeth, their faces greased mean with hunger for sea pelt, and even through the coastline there was a deep love song of granite submitting to time and weather, I felt uneasy.”

It’s hard not to give away the twist but I wondered why the story couldn’t have continued without it. Perhaps that might have worked a little better to develop the forbidden relationships entwined with the expectation of women of that time. The end was wrapped up neatly yet I was a little bewildered by the where the story took us.  This one didn’t quite work as for me but I am glad I read it and will always read more of Hannah Kent.

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