Books

Hannah Kent
Devotion

The Bible verse 4:18 from Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians has many translations, but one phrase remains constant: “… for the things which are seen are temporary; but the things which are not seen are eternal”. These words reassure the stricken that while God and the promised glories of heaven may be unseen, he is eternal as a wellspring of hope or guidance.

In Hannah Kent’s third novel, Devotion, this scripture is uttered by a grieving woman of the Old Lutheran faith. She speaks in the company of two others and catches herself, “afraid she has said too much”, but her companions realise they have been privy to a rare, true confession. The unseen, for this woman, is not God but her dead child; her eternal hope is to be reunited.

With deft subtlety, Kent reveals what often goes unsaid between women. We learn that convention dictates what words are spoken, and that the fear of loss or ostracisation defines those that are not. Kent’s narrator, a young woman named Hanne, opens this world to us early on: “I wish I knew then what I know now,” she says of her mother’s reticence. “She was afraid to declare her love for me; she did not want to tempt fate by it.”

The backdrops for Kent’s story are 1836 Prussia and South Australia, Peramangk Country, in 1838. It is an era of brutal religious reformation and colonial aspirations. Kent effortlessly weaves in historical detail and permits the social mores of the era to guide the characters’ actions.

It is the women – not the decision-making men of the colonial project – who drive this story as they struggle to exist as their full selves within a strict hierarchy of God, husband, family and community. Those desirous of something or someone else must bury their passions deep for they know they are not welcome in this world. As Kent’s narrator says: “My best self, the self that might be most loved, most accepted, was forever in front of me – a shadow self ahead of me on the path that, no matter how fast I ran, never melded with my person.”

We first meet Hanne in the small Prussian village of Kay (now known as Kije, Poland) where she lives with her twin brother, Matthias, baby sister, Hermine, and parents, Johanne and Heinrich. The farming seasons set a rhythm of harvest, butchering and fermenting; the family’s faith provides relief from work with orthodox Lutheran services held in the depths of the forest. The congregation worship in secret for fear of reprimand from state officials who are attempting to unite the Lutheran and Reformed denominations at the order of the King of Prussia, Frederick William III.

Hanne’s father, an elder, dreams that one day the family will experience true freedom – the right to observe their faith without prejudice. Hanne dreams of a different freedom. With masterful restraint, Kent invokes Hanne’s experiences of nature. Thinking about the prospect of a forbidden dance, she recalls: “In my childhood I had heard the fields thrumming with life and my body wanted to move in time with that pulse of seeds.” Hanne is mocked and scolded by her mother for these “childish” thoughts, but this exposure to the silken touch of the wilds is a prelude to her meeting Thea, a newcomer to the community. Through friendship, desire and deep love, they find a freedom neither thought possible. Thea is the one to whom Hanne remains forever devoted.

Kent has said she wanted to create a story with lightness at its heart, a flip from the dark themes that carried her first two novels, Burial Rites (2013) and The Good People (2016). On the ocean as the Old Lutherans sail towards Australia, Kent’s intention becomes most apparent. The journey changes Hanne’s life irrevocably: abandoned by her God, she lets the ocean and sky flood into the void. Not as a replacement to be admired, revered or feared but as a source of warm, vivid, nurturing light.

Nature has long been rendered as an entity to be controlled, whether by industry or ego. The influential conservationist Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring in 1962 that man’s war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. It’s quoted at the beginning of Professor Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree (2021), a remarkable book I thought of often as I devoured Kent’s descriptions of Hanne’s communing with nature. Simard, a forester and scientist, has written extensively and at first controversially about the language of trees and the invisible networks of mycorrhiza that communicate underfoot to keep forests alive.

In an interview, Simard remarked that she was careful about the language she used to describe her research. In a male-dominated field, descriptors such as “mothering trees” are dismissed as frivolous folklore: “Scientists were wringing their hands about whether the network even existed because they couldn’t see it.” In her field, to see is to believe. But to hold this as the only truth deprives us of so much. “We’ve got to embrace our place in nature as one with nature,” says Simard. Kent gives Hanne the freedom to become part of nature’s cycle and as a result, Devotion becomes a searing, lyrical tribute to the unseen and a love story that runs “like a seam of gold”.

Nicola Harvey

Picador Australia, 432pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Devotion, Hannah Kent".

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Reviewer: Nicola Harvey