Devotion, the third novel by international bestselling Adelaide-based author Hannah Kent, is a surprise: a 19th-century queer love story with a supernatural twist.
“It’s a love letter,” she says, inspired by the marriage plebiscite and his wife Heidi’s proposal. “I would never have written this book if I hadn’t met Heidi.” She describes their relationship as one of “total recognition” – two words that she recorded as a touchstone in one of her notebooks when designing this novel.
Kent’s original idea was to write a quick friendship between two women that a modern reader might project ambiguity on. But then she changed her mind. “I wanted to be very clear that these are two women who love each other. And I wanted the characters to be fully aware of that. Because that’s what I want to read. What queer communities want to read. We deserve these kinds of stories now.
Her first novel is set in Australia, Devotion follows Hanne, a young nature worshiper linked to a nearby religious community, on her journey from German Prussia to South Australia. Fleeing religious persecution at home, his fellow Lutherans resettled in the Adelaide Hills, in the settlement that would become Hanhdorf (Bukartilla), displacing the traditional owners of Peramangk and their culture in their quest to preserve theirs.
Hannah’s life is transformed when Thea, her great love, arrives in her village with her family shortly before their migration. Hanne, a stranger, feels recognized on a deep level for the first time – and also feels a connection to Thea’s herbalist mother, Anna Maria, who is said to practice witchcraft.
I knew Hannah before she was famous, when we worked together at the start of Kill your darling, the literary magazine she co-founded with Rebecca Starford. Having arranged this interview through his publicist, I was strangely nervous, not knowing how to act. But when she walked through Muratti’s door on Prospect Road, clad in a loose black sweater over faded jeans, smiling eyes on her mask, I immediately relaxed, before she even tried to argue that ‘she should pay for our take-out coffees. Whenever I see Hannah over the years, I remember the only way literary fame has changed her is by making her slightly apologize for it.
A few doors down to Prospect Library, hidden in a closed meeting room, Hannah says she is “very grateful that at least some people can know my name.” We’re talking about the difficulty of publishing a book during COVID, when readers are more likely to stick with authors they know and love, and interviews and online events have replaced book tours … except in Adelaide , where we sit – another thing Hannah is grateful for. She takes care to calibrate any small complaint with these reminders. It’s a product of these COVID times, she reflects: that mixture of struggle and awareness of one’s own privilege.
Like his first literary blockbuster, Funeral rites, about the last woman executed in Iceland, and Good people, who explored the tragic outcome of attempts to ‘salvage’ a disabled boy in 19th century Ireland, Devotion intimately inhabits its historic setting. And like those earlier novels, it uses real events as a starting point to explore still relevant questions of ethics, human behavior, faith, and belief, creating space for the unknown. The three novels center women on the fringes of their society.
I will be a reader all my life. But will I write all my life? I do not know
I ask if it was risky, with so many mainstream ads, to write a queer love story.
“Totally!” she said without hesitation. And not just that, but her experiments with the language (the novel is characterized by exquisite and lush poetic interludes) and the supernatural elements, which were accentuated with each of Hannah’s novels, everyone felt like a risk. “It’s like I ran to the diving board and changed my mind and finally jumped. It was a joy to write in that sense.
Part of what allowed her to write this book, she says, was deciding that she can’t always write, which allowed her to be less constrained by the idea of a career. . “I will be a reader all my life,” she says. “But am I going to write all my life?” I don’t know. “She jokes that if she kept doing the same thing in an effort to satisfy her readership,” people would expect me to take a female criminal out of the story and write about it every few years “.
The relationship at the heart of the novel freed Hannah from the narrow duty of research that characterized Funeral rites and Good people, both based on real crimes. It just wasn’t possible to find the kind of relationship she wanted to explore in the historical records, which excluded women’s domestic experience (let alone queer relationships) until very recently.
“I decided I could just lean against the story, like an inclined plank,” she says.
Her anxiety about Australia’s colonial history and her need to avoid fetishizing it is one of the reasons she’s avoided putting her novels here before now. “I have so much aversion to our colonial history.” She did not want to pass on the experiences of First Nations or Aboriginals. “I am not native. This is not my place. But she also felt that avoiding these experiences would whitewash history. Her consultation with Peramangk’s eldest, Mandy Brown, was vitally important to making the novel well.
While Hannah is uncomfortable with local history, she is passionately connected to the natural surroundings of the Adelaide Hills, where she grew up and now lives with Heidi and their two young children. Some of the most beautiful passages of Devotion are descriptions of the natural environment. “We stayed there for years. The moon was rising and falling above us, and our hair curled in the forest floor. Our open palms sprouted skins of foam.
“There is a lot of me in young Hanne,” she said. Hanne connects to her natural surroundings on a sensual level: she can hear the song of the trees, and the forest of her native village is her personal cathedral. Hannah remembers waking up on winter mornings to sit in the frost in her rubber boots, wrapping her arms around her favorite oak tree and reading outside among the trees. “These were my dream places.”
Faith and belief are intrinsic to Devotion: Hanne’s community is persecuted for their beliefs, and in turn they persecute Thea’s mother, Anna Maria, for her alleged use of magic. And in Australia, of course, the beliefs and culture of the indigenous inhabitants, including the traditional Peramangk owners of the Hanhndorf (Bukartilla) area, are ignored by the invading villagers – not even seen as real. It’s a nifty parallel to how Hanne and Thea’s queer love is invisible to those around them – it’s literally unimaginable by their community.
“I don’t think you can write a homosexual relationship in a historical context without mentioning religion,” Kent says. “It was such an important part of people’s lives, not just in terms of their belief system, but in terms of how their communities were organized on a day-to-day basis.”
While she wanted to integrate her characters into this reality, she also wanted to avoid writing a novel of shame or self-hatred. I won’t reveal how she solves this conundrum except to say that it’s an unconventional, vividly imagined choice that feels deeply real, even if it prompts the reader to question their own beliefs.
I ask Kent about his own beliefs. She reminds me that although she was not raised in a religious home, she started attending church when she was 19. There was a period of mourning. She has since returned, to some extent, and sees herself as a spiritual person, believing in some sort of “greater being” who is “so much greater than anything we can imagine.” And while she greatly admires Christianity, the faith she’s most familiar with, she believes organized religion is our way of trying to fit something into our lives that we can’t fully understand.
“I just think – don’t judge people and try to like everyone,” she concludes with a laugh. “These things are quite difficult. Let’s stick to it, without adding any complications. “
Devotion, by Hannah Kent, is published by Picador Australia and available now.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.