In Prussia, 1836, fourteen-year-old Hanne lives in a world-within-a-world, a strict religious group where worship must be kept secret and hidden from the sight of neighbours. Devotion by Hannah Kent is the story of Hanne’s persecuted community. They live in fear of expulsion or worse. But when a new family arrives Hanne meets another outsider, Thea, and her life is changed forever. Kent takes her time with the first half. This is a slow start, a painstaking building of the relationship between Hanne and Thea, drawing the world in which neither fits. As Hanne reaches womanhood, her life is changing in small ways. Her mother increasingly separates her from twin brother Matthias as they are prepared for different adult lives. Hanne simply longs to be free to be in the woods, to listen to the sounds of nature alive. But in times of fear or uncertainty, when she bristles against the strict confines set by her mother, the unshakeable belief of her father, she cleaves to her twin. The glimpse of a different world offered by Thea’s family, the more open way they behave with each other, makes Hanne’s mild dissatisfaction with her life become an acute fear of being trapped.
When the offer of safe passage to Australia comes from a helpful member of their congregation, a new life where they will be able to worship without fear becomes possible. ‘Without my father’s devotion to that Bible I would not be here. Without that Bible, nothing would have happened.’
The story is told in three parts, or ‘days’, and the event occurring at the end of the first day is perhaps not surprising but what follows is. To explain, is to tell too much of the plot. The second part, when the travellers settle in the Adelaide Hills, is slow paced. After the sections in Prussia and onboard ship, the indulgence of the writing in what is already a slow-paced novel begins to drag a little.
Kent’s writing is strongest when describing Hanne’s visceral connections with land and sea, with nature, with animals. She seems to directly commune with living creatures, to hear their voices. There is a magical element – magic or witchcraft – threaded throughout the story which is both a benefit and a curse, a source of division within the Lutherans but a form of communication with the native Peramangk community who live on the land the Lutherans claim for their settlement of Heiligendorf.
The theme of devotion, and love, runs throughout. The love shared by Hanne and Thea, but also Hanne’s love for her brother, her friend Hans and her parents. The devotion both to their shared faith and to each other. It is Hanne alone who feels the connection to nature and her devotion to every living creature, and this sets her apart.
At times the beautiful prose dominates the storyline and I lost track of the moment where the action paused. I admit to skipping chunks. No matter the beauty, the tenderness of the writing, a strong narrative is essential to stop the reader floundering and continue reading.
Basically, this is a love story, of love unobtainable and out of reach, but a love all-consuming. With a touch of the supernatural.
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DEVOTION by @HannahFKent #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5wS via @SandraDanby