Australian author Hannah Kent burst on to the scene with her multi-award winning debut Burial Rites, a historical novel set in Iceland. She followed that up with a very different historical piece – The Good People, set in Ireland. In her third novel, Devotion, Kent comes closer to home, basing her story on the immigration of German religious communities fleeing persecution to South Australia in the mid 19th Century. Her first two novels revolved around tragedy and conflict, and while there is some tragedy in Devotion, its centrepiece is a love story.
The book opens in central Prussia in 1836. Teenage Hanne Nussbaum is part of a devout Lutheran community, struggling to maintain its religious identity. Hanne is having her own trouble, not conforming to the norms of the time and so friendless until a new family moves into town. Hanne meets Thea and her life changes. She finds she has a companion, someone who understands her and accepts her eccentricities and the two form a deep connection. Soon after that the whole village, together with other Lutheran communities, is offered a new start in South Australia by an English benefactor and they embark on an arduous six month voyage. That voyage becomes a jump into the unknown in more ways than one and has a lasting impact on Hanne and Thea’s relationship.
To talk more about the plot will spoil some of the heartbreak, joy and revelation that Kent brings to her characters. The tale of the German immigration to South Australia is one of a new beginning but also part of the ongoing story of dispossession of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land. Kent tries to bring a nuanced view of these events but cannot shy away from the fact that over time the immigrants “disfigured the land back into Prussia”. The whole, while interesting from a historical perspective and deeply effecting from a romantic one, lacks a little narrative tension. This is as a result of the choices Kent has made with relation to the characters which can leave readers feeling disconnected from any of the (fairly slight) drama, particularly in the second half of the book.
Kent once again excels in the descriptions of landscape and community that shone in her previous two books. And she manages to infuse the narrative with a longing and deep emotion. Which serves to make Devotion a powerful combination of lyric language, an affecting central relationship and historical detail.