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Book Recommendation: Devotion by Hannah Kent

Perhaps that is why I want to bear witness. I feel it as an urgency within my body. If I rest my fingers against my mouth, I feel my lips move in readiness to speak.

Hannah Kent’s Devotion is a love letter – to her “younger, queer, closeted-as-hell self”; to her wife, Heidi; and to language. 

Following an Old Lutheran community who journey by boat from Prussia in 1838 to South Australia to escape religious persecution, it focuses on the young, wild Hanne and her relationship with Thea, the young daughter in a family new to their village. 

While Burial Rites and The Good People both closely orbited a crime, their writer’s “hands shackled to facts”, Devotion is a love story, unbound and expansive. Set in a time familiar to Kent's readers, with that same deep focus on the experiences of women on the edges of their communities, the story departs in the second half of the novel – much like her protagonist – into a world tethered linguistically and literally to the sublime. It is something new.  

“I feel like I’m always drawn to absences and silences as a writer,” said Kent, “there’s so little representation of queer relationships from that time, and so I started to wonder, ‘Is it even possible to do this within that historical, religious context?’ That’s really what led to a lot more imagination and creative freedom.”

Applying creative freedom to a story set in Australia’s colonial past must be balanced by a commitment to accuracy. Kent spoke with Peramangk and Ngarrindjeri elder Mandy Brown to inform Devotion, with Kent's research uncovering records of interactions between the Peramangk people and Old Lutherans that are incorporated in the novel.

While Kent has remarked that she did not want to write a story set in colonial Australia “privileging the perspective of the oppressors”, this is a challenging task when the novel's main characters are white colonists. “[Kent] touches on their encounters so fleetingly that it feels more like due diligence, cushioning the novel’s principal, romantic theme,” said reviewer Imogen Dewey.   

Running beneath the novel lies the storyteller's urge, tender and profound, to speak and to be heard: “Perhaps that is why I want to bear witness," says Hanne. "I feel it as an urgency within my body. If I rest my fingers against my mouth, I feel my lips move in readiness to speak."

Hanne is often overcome with the need to express, to give form to experience and Devotion is a lush celebration of language’s capacity to capture her feeling. This is reflected in both the rich, poetic prose – appropriate for a character raised by scripture, where the experience of the religious divine is encased by words (God has a “pumping, papered heart”). But also the “water of life” that symbolically and literally cascades from Hanne's mouth (a hint at the supernatural shift in the novel). When meeting Thea for the first time, Hanne describes that “it seemed, for one moment, that we were underwater.” Their first kiss “sweeping through me like breath, like water, like the spirit of God.”

The expression of Hanne’s love for Thea and the natural world is exquisitely crafted and undoubtedly the most entrancing and unforgettable part of the novel. The blue of Thea’s eyes are described as “the coffin lining of the world”, divinity recognised by “the smell of sap”, eternal life seen “forever under a canopy of trees, angel appearing like perfect circles of pine cap mushrooms, glistening wet, anointing my fingers with saffron milk."

Devotion is a stunning work of linguistic beauty to be washed over by. 

Recommended by Emma Walsh, Marketing Coordinator