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Exploring Australia’s Colonial History: A review of “Devotion” by Hannah Kent

Book cover of Hannah Kent’s Devotion sitting on a bed of leaves and grass.

Devotion is an Australian colonial saga. It chronicles the Prussian and German immigrants who travelled to Australia, specifically to South Australia, in the 1800s. It is about love, loss, religious persecution, and the Australian landscape.

When I first saw this book, I was hesitant to read it. I find many (Australian) novels that address Australia’s colonial history tend to do so in a way that at best sugar coats Australia’s colonial past, and at worst erases the trauma and hardships of indigenous Australians. I didn’t know what to expect when I opened up Hannah Kent’s novel, and it meant that when I started to read it I was feeling unsure.

Devotion follows the story of Hanne’s, her family’s and extended community’s journey to South Australia to escape religious persecution. There is the promise of religious freedom, a new start, and better life where they can practice their Old Lutheran ways without persecution. Hanne and her closest friend Thea, along with their families get on a boat and travel to Australia. The bond between Hanne and Thea is strong and before they leave Kay, they share a stolen kiss in the forest. Both Hanne and Thea don’t seem to have the words to describe their relationship, and what transpires between them is hidden from their families and community.

The idea of Devotion, the title of Kent’s novel, isn’t just about Hanne and Thea’s relationship. It takes on many meanings in the novel and it is one of the things that I found so beautiful and profound about Kent’s writing. It is at the same time, about religious devotion, devotion to family and community, it is about love – plutonic and romantic, it is about honouring the people we love in life and death, and it is about our relationship with nature.

I really don’t want to give away the plot too much because the plot twist in this novel is the kind where the record screeches to a halt and you’re like, What the heck?! For anyone who has read the book – you know what I mean. But this move from the author is bold. And I was very confused when it happened. I thought to myself, I don’t know how this is going to go? But it actually works and works really well. In fact, I don’t think the novel could be what it was without this twist.

I would file this novel under the broad umbrella of historical fiction and I can tell you that Kent does her research. As a fluent German speaker and historian, I was impressed by the amount of historical and linguistic work Kent put into the novel. There are lots of beautiful metaphors that work throughout the novel – like how Thea plants a walnut tree in her yard, which is also Hanne’s last name Nussbaum (walnut tree in German).

I saw an interview with Kent where she talked about how she felt about writing a novel about Australia’s colonial history and the treatment of indigenous Australians. There are only a few references throughout the novel and Kent made it clear in the interview that she did not want to nor was it her place to tell those kinds of indigenous stories. In saying that, Kent was able to touch on some of the relationships between indigenous peoples and settlers, however, and possibly for many reasons, the interactions are fairly neutral to positive.

Overall, I enjoyed Kent’s work and I am curious to see what she will write next. I wanted to leave you with my favourite quote from the novel:

The moon rose before I was there to see it. The moon will rise when I am gone again. I yield to that.

Devotion, Hannah Kent

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