There are certain writers whose work I always look forward to reading, and for whom I am always excited to hear of their forthcoming projects, and Hannah Kent is one of them. I loved both of Hannah’s previous novels, with the Burial Rites in particular a favourite of mine – and one of few novels that have actually moved me to tears! So, as you can imagine, I was very excited to have the opportunity to read her new novel, Devotion, which is published on the 3rd February.
I love historical fiction which is why previous novels The Good People and the aforementioned Burial Rites appealed so much to me with their depiction of life in the nineteenth century, inspired by true historical events, and the dark, atmospheric tone that Kent uses to bring these stories to life. But as I sat down to read Kent’s letter to the reader that precedes this story, I was interested to hear that Devotion marks something of a departure for the author, something a little different from her previous novels which were restricted in some way due to them sticking relatively closely to the historical facts. And whilst Devotion soon immerses the reader in the nineteenth century, it is a character journey that evolves in ways you may not expect.
Set in Prussia in 1836, the story is narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl named Hanne. As is expected of a girl approaching her later teen years, she feels the weight of expectation, and the responsibilities of womanhood and motherhood close in on her. This makes Hanne feel something of an outsider, unable to find her place amongst other girls in her village, instead being a child who yearns for the natural world, seeking solace amongst the trees and out in the elements where she can feel the rush of water and wind. There is a poetry to the writing here which I loved, and the way in which Kent describes Hanne’s emotions and spirit and her perception of the world around her is beautiful. It is here that she meets something of a kindred spirit in a girl named Thea, which sparks the beginning of a strong bond between the two, but one that is immediately challenged by the changing world around them. With their small community in danger, there is a chance at freedom when they are granted safe passage to Australia, where a new life awaits…
As Hanne and Thea and their families find themselves aboard a ship bound for Australia, there is a sense of trepidation as the true extent of the challenges they face are described. Again, the writing is evocative of time and place, with Kent effectively capturing the claustrophobic atmosphere aboard the ship. The descriptions of the choppy waters, cramped living quarters and the threat of illness in stark contrast to the natural world Hanne yearns for. It is here that we see the strain that these conditions have on those travelling to their new life, the risks taken in a search for freedom, and a place to call their own. I found myself fully immersed in this story, and it was one that also surprised me as there was a change in events that I didn’t foresee, and one which challenges the bond between Hanne and Thea in unimaginable ways.
In her letter to readers, Kent also mentions how Devotion feels very personal to her, and that shows through the beauty of the writing. The way in which the depth of emotion between the characters is portrayed and the devotion they show to each other in such extreme circumstances was wonderful to read, and I really enjoyed following the characters on this journey. This journey is not an easy one, but it is one that explores the strength of love, between not only the characters, but between them and the land, and the places they seek, together.
Devotion is to be published on 3rd February 2022 by Picador. With thanks to the publisher for providing a proof copy for review.