Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Every time I pick up one of Hannah Kent’s books, I marvel at her depth of knowledge of a place and time that she can’t possibly know.
And she is still so young!
Her new novel, Devotion, transports us to a God-fearing Old Lutheran community in Germany in the 1830s.
The intricate and intimate details of life in this village are extraordinarily well documented. To the point that, after I’ve been immersed in the book for an hour, it’s almost a jolt to find, when I look up, that it’s the 21stcentury and I’m in the western suburbs in air-conditioned comfort.
Hanne is a teenage girl with a gift. She can hear the trees speak, the wind sing, the soil moan. But she keeps this gift a secret so others won’t think she’s odd.
But they already do think she’s odd because of all the time she spends lying under the trees, listening to the river and talking to the family’s pig. So she has no friends.
Until Thea arrives in the village with her parents. It is whispered that Thea’s mother is a witch. Is she? Does she really worship the same God as the other villagers?
I fell in love with Thea’s mother, Anna Maria; such a beautiful gentle soul. In fact, I think I fell a little bit in love with most of Hannah Kent’s characters, so completely and empathetically drawn.
The story of Hanne and Thea’s friendship, that deepens into something more, is set against the migration of the Lutherans to the great south land. They sailed from Germany to South Australia in the late 1830s and set up a community in the Adelaide hills, known as Hahndorf.
The voyage is horrific. Cramped conditions, lack of hygiene and poor (and little) food leads to disease, distress and death, as it would have done for so many ill-fated migrants making the six-month journey from Europe to Australia in the 19thcentury.
A devastating event at sea separates Hanne and Thea.
I don’t want to spoil the story, but the second half of the book is seen through the eyes of one of them without others in the community knowing she is there.
“And then. And then.” Hannah Kent writes. And the reader knows that something extraordinary is about to happen.
This second half will have you suspending disbelief and entering the realm of the spiritual. If that makes you turn up your nose…wait. Keep reading. There is plenty of blood and guts, birth and death, love and hatred to keep you engrossed.
And the supernatural starts to seem, well, natural.
It is a beautiful book, with the devotion between Hanne and Thea as deep as the devotion to God by Hanne’s Bible-quoting father and the sanctimonious elders and pastors of the little community.
Part of that beauty is Hannah Kent’s subtle language, often simply hinting at something, akin to the hint we sometimes get in our own lives when we think we see or hear the flash of a loved one who is not there.
If you are one of those people who skims books, you might not catch it. Immerse yourself and enjoy…right to the last line.
$32.99 from Open Book, 124 Wellington Street, Mosman Park