Devotion by Hannah Kent: ‘My life was only ever a hand’s breadth’

Cover image for Devotion by Hannah KentIt’s seems an age since I reviewed Hannah Kent’s debut, Burial Rites. For a long time, it was one of my most visited posts and I’ve never been able to work out why. Despite enjoying it, I didn’t get around to The Good People but enthusiastically accepted when I was offered Devotion. Both her previous novels are based on actual events but although this one grew out of an interest in her ancestors, it’s very much a work of fiction. Beginning in 1836, it follows a congregation of Old Lutherans from their Prussian village to the other side of the world where they find challenges beyond their imagining. It’s not an easy one to write about as halfway through something happens that stopped me in my tracks.

The testimony of love is the backbone of the universe. It is the taproot from which all stories spring 

Kay’s congregation has been without their pastor for some time, fled to England to save himself. The elders hold services in his absence, Hanne’s father always eager to display his piety. She and her twin, Mathias, are careful around their mother whose grief for the loss of their brother is buried deep. Hanne’s spirituality is of a different kind, rooted in a reverence for nature rather than scripture,. She’s somewhat apart from the other girls who spent their time thinking about marriage and children. When a new family arrives, Hanne finds an affinity with Thea who is as different as she is. Thea’s mother is a healer and midwife, regarded with the suspicion reserved for heretics by the women of the village until some are won over by her skills. By the time the congregation receives permission to leave Prussia, Hanne and Thea have found the kind of love they can’t speak of even to each other. The villagers are given the option of settling in Australia, undertaking a long and arduous journey some will not survive. When they arrive, they must start from scratch in a barren landscape. Suspicion and fear continue to dog many of them both of the indigenous people whose generosity saves many of them from starvation, and Thea’s mother whose evident piety is not enough for the more judgemental. Somehow, a settlement grows out of this hardship and love continues to blossom but in an altogether different way.

Why do men bother with churches at all when instead they might make cathedrals out of sky and water 

Kent’s novel is narrated through Hanne’s engaging voice. She’s an appealing young woman whose love of nature trumps the more traditional piety of her community. Through her, Kent explores themes of faith, difference, suspicion and prejudice but above all this is a love story and a heart wrenching one, beginning with a beautiful, yearning passage in which one hand reaches out to another. The event which I’ve been dithering about describing changes the story in a way that might have had me running for the exit in a lesser novel. Other reviewers may be happy to be more explicit but I’ve decided against it. Suffice to say, I swallowed my doubts and, aside from one wobble, I’m glad I did. Kent’s writing is atmospheric, often striking in its descriptions. Her depiction of an inward-looking community riven with suspicion, convincing. I enjoyed it very much. Apologies if I’ve been frustratingly oblique.

Picador: London 9781509863914 304 pages Hardback

14 thoughts on “Devotion by Hannah Kent: ‘My life was only ever a hand’s breadth’”

    1. Thanks, Cathy. I’d hate to ruin in for other readers but it’s so dramatic I had to find some way of referring to the event. Glad it seems to have worked! I hope you enjoy it.

  1. I very much enjoyed this book but have been dithering over my review because of the ‘something happened’. Like you, I will not reveal it but… but… so hard to say all I want to!

    I picked Devotion up a little hesitantly because Burial Rites was magnificent and Good People wasn’t. Excuse the bluntness, but I was bitterly disappointed by Good People – in Devotion, Kent has returned to form, particularly in her descriptions of landscape.

    1. I feel I’ve ended up writing a somewhat anodyne review but I was determined to keep it spoiler free.

      That seems to have been the pattern for quite a few readers, Kate. I think I’ll skip Good People.

  2. Well I still haven’t read Buriel Rites despite having bought it for kindle 2 or 3 years ago. I will probably read that before any of her other novels, though this one does sound fascinating. The time period and setting very much appeal.

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