Devotion: a Book Review

As promised, my little detour from my plan to work through my Christmas book pile has been a brief one. Devotion by Hannah Kent arrived through my letterbox less than a week ago and I have managed to devour it already. I must say after finishing the book I am conflicted, and not over my decision to deviate from my non-resolution plan. I really wanted to like Devotion, and parts of it I definitely do, but for me there is a rather big flaw which sapped much of my enjoyment towards the end.

I will explain a little more (without spoilers I hope) about my thoughts below. First, I should mention I will be back on track with the plan for my next book to be read, Japonisme. To say this will be a change of pace is an understatement!

First, my thoughts on Devotion.

Devotion

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

After the success of Burial Rites and (in my opinion) the even better book The Good People, Kent has established herself as an author of exquisite historical fiction. Devotion follows in a similar vein, telling the story of a young women and her family emigrating from Germany to Australia some time in the 19th Century.

Through a combination of beautiful prose and detailed historical research, Kent manages to create a world both relatable and yet completely alien. With love as the primary theme, she still finds ample space to explore religiosity and bigotry, community and inevitably death, told through the eyes of characters who are just flawed enough to be believable and likeable in equal measure. While the pace at times can feel a little laboured, Devotion it telling a story which spans years, it should not be much to ask for the reader to put in the effort to journey with the characters as well.

At this point you might well be wondering why I am conflicted about this book. I have (careful to avoid spoilers) said nothing overtly negative, if I was to read my review so far I would be keen to give Devotion a read.

My problem with the book comes midway through with a very obvious narrative shift and the introduction of the fantastical to an erstwhile historical piece. Having read a couple of pages beyond the shift, I found myself going back to read read those same pages to check I was not imagining the change, a change which feels so unnecessary within what is otherwise a great book, and unfortunately it really pulled me out of the story and left me feeling just a little disappointed by the end.

What I really liked

  1. The attention to detail and research Kent includes in her books is evident from the first page. Even better, she manages to weave unfamiliar (to a modern audience) concepts throughout without being too distracting or derailing the plot.
  2. The main character Hanne is instantly likeable, relatable and as I have said above just flawed enough to be believable, the teen angst is present without being overbearing, and enough childlike wonder remains to allow the reader to explore unfamiliar worlds with her.
  3. Strangely, the focus on death as a natural part of life (…) for nineteenth century people felt wholly appropriate. The raw emotion felt at the loss of a character coupled with the need for those remaining to quickly move on was heart wrenching.

The less good bits

  1. There is only really one thing in the book I really disliked, but it is a biggy. Kent is not a stranger to changes in perspective in a book (Burial Rites switches frequently from the first to third person), and while it irritated me a little and is one of the reasons I think The Good People is better, I could just about tolerate it. In Devotion, their is only one narrative shift (not so much perspective, but if I said much more I risk spoilers) but it has such a dramatic effect not only on the telling of the story but also the plot that there should be a good reason for it. For me, there just is not. Devotion is a story which could be told just as well (if not better) sticking with the one perspective from the start, and I think it is shame Kent chose to include the unnecessary change.

Summary

If you are a fan of Hannah Kent, or similar writers such as Kiran Millwood Hargrave, then you will probably enjoy Devotion. After all, it has all the attention to detail and delicate story telling I have come to expect from Kent. And I did enjoy the plot, related to the characters and appreciate the research gone into this work. If (when) Kent writes her next book I am certain I will buy it. It is just a shame there is the perspective issue in the middle of the book which for me distracted me too much to enjoy the ending. Ranking her three novels to date, for me it has to be The Good People, Burial Rites and then I am afraid Devotion as a not really close third.

So who should read this book? As I have said already fans of Kent will enjoy this book, and if you have not ordered it already then get yourself a copy. This book will probably also appeal to those interested in Australian colonisation, and to a lesser extent religious persecutions in Europe. Like with Kent’s other books, I would also imagine those interested in historical fiction but not wanting to read about battles and kings and the like should think about adding this to their to be read pile,

Have you read Devotion or got it on the TBR pile? What did you think of the narrative shift in the middle? Have I been too harsh with my review? Let me know (without spoilers of course) what you think in the comments below.

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