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Odessey to Australia Launches a Metaphysical Self-discovery into Immortal Love

An immutable queer love is at the heart of Devotion, a 19th-century historical romance novel that journeys through the uncharted territory of the supernatural

Devotion review cover
Devotion by Hannah Kent Cover

Title

Devotion

Author(s)

Hannah Kent

Genre

Historical Fiction | LGBTQIA+

Hannah Kent’s Devotion is a sensory homage to nature in 413 pages. But to read this novel, Kent’s third, one must first dispense with logic and any previous assumptions about life, death, and love in the 1800s. An epic adventure of grit and perseverance, the story follows a congregation of Old Lutherans seeking religious freedom, who risk everything to sail down the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean from Prussia to South Australia.

Hanne, the narrator, lives with her family in a small community, comprised mostly of Old Lutherans. They live in Kay, a Prussian village in an area then considered German, but now part of modern-day Poland. Theirs is an austere, methodical life of chores, duty, and secret prayer services in the forest. 

Attuned to nature, Hanne yearns for her parents’ affection. With no friends to whom she can relate, Hanne spends much of her time wandering in the forest, talking to the wind, and listening to the trees’ melodic hymns. The village girls her age seem fixated on marriage preparation, and the boys are alien to her. Much to her mother, Johanne’s chagrin, Hanne would rather be a pig than grow up and get married; she’d have “food and sun and some mud to roll in.”

Newcomers to Kay, the Eichenwalds, are a mysterious family of three, who rent a dilapidated cottage in the forest. Anna Maria, a Wendish woman, is the wife of Friedrich and the mother of Thea. A healer and midwife, her knowledge of herbal remedies prompts rumors of witchcraft. But Kent’s introduction of Thea Eichenwald is the most fascinating. We don’t see Thea initially, but from her mother’s description, we understand that Anna Maria has a keen eye for observation. And for Hanne, the mere essence of the girl’s name impels her to repeatedly “pass it over her tongue”. 

Anna Maria says of her daughter, “She dances to her own music. Much like you, Hanne, I think.” 

To which Johanne replies, “We do not believe in dancing here.”

At this point in the novel, Hanne hasn’t yet seen Thea, but cannot stop thinking of her. “The words, intimating desire of the body, thrilled me. I had never danced before…But I did understand the impulse.”

When they meet, flawless Thea Eichenwald––with skin paler than her nearly white-blond hair––so unnerves Hanne that she slices her hand on the knife she uses to forage for mushrooms.

Hanne’s intrinsic awareness of the differences between her stoic, duty-bound, and rigid parents and Thea’s tactile and loving parents draw Hanne closer to the Eichenwalds. She wants to be loved but doesn’t feel she can, least of all by her mother. Unaware of the shifting sentiment to leave Kay, Hanne and Thea develop an immediately tactile and deep-seated connection. Theirs is an otherworldly attraction. For the next three years, their lives in dour Kay are blissful.

But when the king finally permits the congregants to leave Kay, plans for a voyage aboard a ship called the Kristi are realized. Hanne and Thea’s world is thrown into chaos.

Kent’s story is inspired by the 1838 migration of the Old Lutherans from Prussia on the ship Zebra. Of the 199 people who began the voyage, 188 survived. Similarly, in Devotion, the ship Kristi sets sail for Adelaide, South Australia, and is almost immediately stricken with typhus. Families experience unthinkable losses, children are orphaned, and congregants are forced to bury their dead at sea.

Filled with intense sentimentality, artfully vivid descriptions of the natural world, and cunning foreshadowing, Kent’s prose demands that we continue turning the page. However, the narrative includes a polarizing twist––spoilers ahead on Goodreads.com

This novel isn’t simply about zealots who fled religious persecution to colonize and plow untamed land in the New World. As Hanne observes, “All this way, and they have disfigured the land back into Prussia.” It’s a thoughtful, thoroughly researched, and thought-provoking work of fiction that tackles gripping themes, starting with Prussia’s religious persecution of the Old Lutherans. You can’t help but root for them as they barely make it alive to the other side of the world, only to start from scratch in unceded Indigenous Peramangk country, a territory they had no natural right to colonize.

The second theme is the dubious existence of the paranormal. Kent’s often heavy-handed imagery of breathing life through nature and its consequences sometimes screams hyperbole. But she weaves the third theme within the nuance of her writing. Despite their circumstances, Hanne and Thea’s love and devotion continue to flourish. It haunts Thea, who attempts to live the life that her parents expect from her.

As the romantic relationship between these two women develops, so does their poignant, often tragic self-discovery, along with the realization that love never dies. Of the many LGBTQIA+ novels I’ve read, this one stands out as one of the most ardent, unwavering representations of organic love between two women.

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About the author(s).

Hannah Kent is an author and screenwriter. Her first novel, Burial Rites, has been translated into more than thirty languages and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Guardian First Book Award, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In Australia, it won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, amongst others. Her second novel, The Good People, was also translated into many languages and shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize. Dedicated to her wife, Heidi, Devotion, her third novel, was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award. Hannah lives and works on Peramangk Country in South Australia.

 

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