Devotion by Hannah Kent review – 19th-century voyage of discovery

Two young Prussian women emigrate to Australia in Kent’s rapturous but overblown third novel

The Australian writer Hannah Kent has found critical and commercial success with fictionalised reworkings of real-life historical crimes. Her bestselling debut, Burial Rites, shortlisted for the 2014 Women’s prize, examined the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to death in Iceland in 1829 for the savage murder of her master. Her second, The Good People, was based on 1820s newspaper reports about the violent attempts by an Irish village to banish a child they believed to be a changeling. Both books cleaved closely to the historical record, working within the constraints of the known facts to invest those bleak and brutal stories with ambiguity and depth, and to give a voice to participants whom the past had long condemned to silence.

With Devotion, Kent returns for a third time to the same period, this time to the Prussian village of Kay and a close-knit community of Old Lutherans, compelled by the strict religious reforms of their emperor to worship in secret. Many of Kent’s familiar themes are here: the fierce connections and exclusions that bind small communities; the tension between doctrinal religion and superstition; the power of landscape. This time, however, the history is much closer to home. Kent grew up (and still lives) in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Most of the émigrés who settled in this unceded Indigenous land were English, but some were Prussians like the Old Lutherans of Kay, in search of a place where they could practise their faith in peace. Those Prussians were Kent’s forebears – the start of her own story.

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