Book review: Devotion by Hannah Kent

(courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Hannah Kent is one of those infinitely talented writers who takes the gloriously supple words of the English language and wields them with such beauty, meaning and emotional impact that it’s impossible to read one of her novels and not feel something shift deep down inside you.

Her rare gift of crafting writing that is rawly beautiful and a pleasure to read but which feels relatably accessible too – accomplishing one or the other is common enough but rarely the two together as impactfully good as Kent seamlessly and affectingly manages – is on vibrantly powerful display in the impassioned rebelliousness of Devotion by Hannah Kent, a novel which redefines what it means to wholly give yourself over to something.

Or in the case of ill-fitting Hanne Nussbaum, to someone.

A social and emotional outlier, who feels misunderstood by her parents, her parents in particular, and by the strict old Lutheran village in which she lives in 1836 Prussia, which is in active defiance of the monarchy’s religious reform edicts, Hanne feels at perpetual odds with the world around it and those who inhabit it in a rigid state of unyielding commitment to a God who seems to care little for difference or original thinking or feeling.

While other girls her age are readying themselves for devotion to God and a man who will grant them security and certainty but only rarely actual love, Hanne is out in the lustrously alive woods around her home, hearing nature sing with a vibrancy and beauty that feels so much more vividly present that anything she hears at the services she is forced to attend, ironically out in the very clearings where worship of the natural world takes place with a powerfully affecting truthfulness.

On the few occasions I had revealed something of my true self, seeking communion or recognition, I had been met with wide-eyed confusion or outright scorn. My interests were not theirs. Another girl my age in the village would be yet one more reminder that I was ill-made.

How do they know how to be? I remember wondering as I ripped feathers that night? How does anyone know how to be?

Hanne feels so much and has a vivacity to her that the bigoted, quick to judgement folks around her have long lost in their scramble to adhere with blind veracity to truths they hold so far that they have sucked all the life out of them – they would contend otherwise, seeing themselves as the true holders of a vital faith but theirs is a faith cauterised and fossilised, more apt to destroy than create or build up – and she finds herself barely able to function in a world that demands so much of her that is not her.

That is until she meets the wonderfully luminous Thea, a mid-teenager 18 days her senior – she laments with a passion borne of the depth of true, devoted love, that those 18 days were near impossible to bear, even as a baby – who transforms her and awakens something in her that she was barely aware was there.

While her family and fellow villagers, who decide to depart for freedom in the Australian colony of South Australia in 1838, hold themselves up as the ones who know real faith and its passionate expression (and who are suffering for it), they are stale and lack in any real vivacity, something that seems to fall to Hanne herself who finally understands what it is to love someone so completely and without reserve and with ceaseless passion, just as she is similarly loved back, that all you want is to be devoted to them.

(courtesy official author site)

In many ways Devotion is a powerfully impactful comparison of what truly devoting yourself to someone or something looks like; on the one hand, we have the old Lutherans of Hanne’s mostly-transplanted village who talk love and truth but who are all too often as oppressive in their condemnatory words and actions as the people they flee to the Flinders Ranges on a disease-infected ship for six months to escape and someone who feels as if she has a shaky at best grip on it means to live life properly, but who is, it turns out, the most richly in touch with its many mysteries and soul-reshaping possibilities.

Hanne gets it in a way that those around her never will, and while her love for another woman breaks a thousand tenets and rigidly-enforced articles of faith, as does Thea and her mother’s practice of old Christianity which veers dangerously to the occult for many old Lutherans, it is the most pure and beautiful thing there is, singing a luminously lovely song of praise to true love and devotion that fills this wholly gorgeously gritty novel with the most alive expression of the meaning of its title that you could hope for.

While there are those who do know love and what faith looks like when it’s not merely an inflexibly wizened reflection of its true intent, such as Hanne’s twin brother Matthias and her childhood friend Hans Pasche, they do not know it like Hanne and Thea do.

The banns were read the following two services, and each time I declared it was impossible. I love Thea. We had already given ourselves to one another, had sealed that covenant, had made witnesses of trees. We have married ourselves, I told the congregation. Ask the forest. Ask the ship lumber. You’ll find our signatures in the bruised gills of mushrooms. In the salt air above the sea.

No one said anything. The ocean claimed me each time.

Societally and religiously, there is an impossibility to what Thea and Hanne are to each other.

Unyielding dogma says they should not and cannot be infinitely, forever devoted to one another, but then life, real life that lives and breathes and hasn’t succumbed to the dead hand of legalism cloaked as real devotion, has a way of defying the status quo as every turn.

The fact that their love is nor right in the eyes of a people who long ago lost the ability to see things as they are not as they quietly but fanatically wish them to be, does not change the fact that Hanne and Thea, but Hanne especially, who is in touch with the rhythm of life and nature in ways that are stunningly, beautifully worshipful, intuitively know what love and commitment to another really is.

While there is heartbreak and sadness, loss and pain in amongst all the good and wonderful things that their love gives them, expressed by Kent in ways so breathtakingly real and emotionally resonant that you don’t read Devotion so much as experience it if you’re heart is open, it possesses a vitality and real that make life come alive again in ways you might have thought our world has methodically snuffed from existence.

Love might seem like the most cosy, sweet and home-sculpting things there is, and it is, but it is also muscular and brave and daring in its purest form, something Hanne, outlier to the end, and Thea have in abundance, and it fills Devotion with language so lovely and skilfully, emotionally resonantly wrought that their story in all its glory and pain is something so impossibly, transformatively, impactfully beautiful will linger with you so powerfully afterwards that you will question if you truly understood what it is to give yourselves over to someone, or something, before you experienced the raw emotional power of Kent’s ode to love, truth and yes, devotion.

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