• Sun. Nov 28th, 2021

Hannah Kent’s new novel: ‘It’s just one big giant love letter to her’

Oct 22, 2021

By Jane Howard

Moving away from fidelity to the historical record was “freeing,” says Hannah Kent.Credit:Ben Searcy

Hannah Kent is tired. When we meet, it is a beautiful crisp early spring morning at her house in the Adelaide Hills, and she was up at 2:30 last night with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “My kids are just awful sleepers,” she says. Her daughter loves reading, and while trying to get her back to bed the night before, she was asking for “just one tiny little book, just read me one, tiny book”.

“So I did,” Kent says, “and after that, she’s like, ‘no, I said three books’.” She laughs. “No you didn’t, just one!”

Life has changed a lot for the author since her first two books were released. Her debut, 2013’s Burial Rites, was an ambitious novel telling the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person executed in Iceland in 1830. It was translated into more than 30 languages and shortlisted for both Australia’s Stella Prize and the United Kingdom’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and Jennifer Lawrence is attached to an adaptation which is currently looking for a lead script writer (“It was pretty crazy,” Kent says of the success. “Still is.“).

Burial Rites was soon followed by The Good People in 2016, another historical crime novel this time set in Ireland, where a young boy dies after three women attempt to expel the fairies they believe have taken over his body.

In the five years since The Good People, Kent got engaged (on the day Australia voted “yes” on the marriage equality plebiscite), married, had two children with her wife Heidi (their daughter has been joined by an 18-month-old son), played around with playwriting and screenwriting (Run Rabbit Run, starring Elisabeth Moss, will be filmed in South Australia next year) and wrote her third book, Devotion, out next week.

Hannah Kent, pictured in her garden in South Australia, wrote her novel in the fog of parental sleep deprivation.Credit:Ben Searcy

Kent laughs when I ask what it was like having two children while writing a book. “I don’t recommend it for people on a deadline!” she jokes. But, she says, “from a practical point of view it probably explains some of the wackier elements of the book. Just the sheer amount of sleep deprivation. I don’t think I slept a single night through during the writing of the book.”

At first, Devotion follows the pattern of her other books. Again, Kent is writing historical fiction set in the 19th century world , this time among the German Old Lutherans facing religious persecution who make the choice to immigrate to the new colony of South Australia. Many die on the long journey, and it is here, half-way through the novel, Devotion turns into something completely different: a queer love story; a ghost story; magical realism.

In many ways, this is a story much closer to home. The deeply religious Lutherans were among the first migrants to South Australia, encouraged to migrate to the first Australian colony of free-settlers. On their arrival, they set up first in Klemzig (now a suburb in Adelaide), then Hahndorf (fictionalised here by Kent as Heiligendorf) in the Adelaide Hills.

Even today, these early Germanic influences still pop up around the state: in surnames and place names; in Beerenberg jams, Henschke wines and the South Australianism for devon: fritz. When Kent’s Lutherans reach Heiligendorf for the first time, they observe “the red-gold valley, gentle-sloped”. The gentle-sloped landscape of Hahndorf is now a German-influenced tourist town, still home to many of the early buildings – and family names – of these settlers.

Devotion threw up new questions of fairness to the past: how do you write about white colonists? Credit:Ben Searcy

But Devotion isn’t just close to home physically. Of the queer love story, in particular, Kent says, this is “my most personal book yet”.

“It has been one of the most profound experiences of my life, to fall in love with Heidi,” she says. “I don’t think without her encouragement, too, I would have written a book like this.”

‘It has been one of the most profound experiences of my life, to fall in love with Heidi.’

Devotion was originally going to explore a friendship between two young women, but as she wrote Kent realised she wanted to write a bigger story: a true romance. But there was an obvious sticking point: how to write a queer love story between two young women living in a pious society of the 19th century? The trouble wasn’t even just in the place of God and religion in their lives; it would also be a complete absence of language around those emotions.

Moving away from fidelity to the historical record was “freeing,” says Hannah Kent.Credit:Ben Searcy

And so, to write a historical queer love story, Kent killed off one of her leading ladies, Hanne, who then stands, ghostly, overseeing the action, witnessing life continue without her. With Hanne’s death, says Kent, “comes this opening up in so many ways”.

The language around love and desire in the first half of the novel feels unsure, tentative. In death, though, there is a bursting open, as Hanne is able to finally find the words to express the nature and the depth of her love for Thea.

“As much as the world is closed to her, she’s allowed to be subversive in a way that was never permitted,” Kent says of this afterlife, “because everything that was holding her in her position she realises isn’t actually there. The rules don’t matter; they’re not true, they’re not accurate.”

There is a sense of Kent herself letting go of the rules in Devotion, too. Moving away from fidelity to the historical record, she says, was “freeing”. When writing her first two books, Kent leaned heavily on historical research, delving into the archives to find out everything she could about the women she was focused on. It was “research as insurance against, I don’t know, accusations of being fraud, or having a superficial interest”.

Hannah Kent in an Adelaide bookshop in 2013, soon after the publication of Burial Rites.Credit:David Mariuz

For Burial Rites, this involved a careful read of the records to ensure none of the fictionalised characters lined up with real people whose ancestors could be hurt by her storytelling. For The Good People, where folk cures and fairy beliefs are central, she immersed herself in research to ensure she wasn’t “laughing at these people who were illiterate and completely in the depths of poverty, and kept there by a lot of very formal structures and political rules”.

But Devotion threw up new questions of fairness to the past: how do you write about white colonists? What does it mean when your lead character would be, as Kent describes her, by dent of historical accuracy, “deeply racist, deeply prejudiced, and absolutely a perpetrator”?

“I was never going to, obviously, take the perspective of an Aboriginal character,” Kent tells me. “I don’t want to tell any stories that are not mine to tell.” But by trying to shine light on a true story, as she did in her previous books, Kent felt “there was no way I could do it properly, respectfully, without it making it seem like it was just another story representing the oppressors”.

In death, Kent says, Hanne was able to be open to new experiences: she understands the world exists beyond her community; the truth of the world exists beyond the Bible she has been taught. Just as Hanne finds words for her queer desire in death, so she is given new language and a new vantage point to observe the Peramangk people of the Adelaide Hills and the native plants of the landscape through something closer to our contemporary eyes.

“And it was hard!” Kent says of this freedom. “It was exhilarating, but it was also really hard because I’ve never been able to just throw myself into imagination in that way. And the possibilities are so open.”

‘It was exhilarating, but it was also really hard because I’ve never been able to just throw myself into imagination in that way.’

After the incredible success of Burial Rites, the pressure to have a repeat success sat heavy on Kent when she came to write her second book. “There was a big time when I was just really scared, [worrying] how do I ensure that people will like this?,” she says.

“It was just paralysing.” But, ultimately, she realised she needed to “return to the love of writing”.

Burial Rites:

There were some who read The Good People, Kent reflects five years on, and thought it was even better than Burial Rites. There were others who thought it paled in comparison. This realisation was another freeing moment for the author. It made her think “you can’t please everyone, you may as well do what you want. And then times that, with very little sleep, you end up with a book like Devotion.

“But that’s, again,” she says, “testament to Heidi because she took time off work to look after [the children] so I could write. That was the proverbial privilege white cis man stereotype: the wife looking after the kids, so I could shut myself off in my office.”

Shortlisted authors at the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in London in 2014, from left, Hannah Kent, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Audrey Magee and winner Eimear McBride. Credit:Rune Hellestad/Getty

It is clear when talking with Kent, that Devotion is so very much a book of the heart. As she describes it, Devotion was a book “that honoured the things that I wanted to honour, and also a book that I wanted to read”.

“It was a lot easier writing this book because it’s not that I care less – I really wish I could be one of those people who are just like ‘I don’t care what other people think’,” she says. “I care so badly what other people think.” But, she goes on, “I think I’m getting just more at ease with how deeply uncool I am. Of course, I care what people think, but I think I prioritised my own relationship to the book in this one.”

“The book is just saturated in love,” Kent says, “because I feel like that’s where so much of my life has been in these last couple of years.”

Another side to love, of course, is grief. Grief is a repeating theme in Kent’s books. Burial Rites′ Agnes mourns for her own life as she heads towards her execution; The Good People’s Nora Leahy mourns a daughter and grandson; Devotion’s Hanne mourns her life as her community mourns her. When writing historical fiction, Kent says, “you’re always looking for things to connect readers with the characters. So much of that is often those universal emotions which are unchanged over time. I think that’s what makes them so powerful.”

The Good People

“It’s the timelessness, I think, of grief I want to look at in those books. In so many ways, ghosts are the perfect symbol of that: this lingering that time has no effect on. It’s outside of time’s control,” she says.

There is a quietness to Kent as she reflects on grief in her books. She pauses and searches for the words. “I think so much of writing is just asking questions and not having answers, so it’s hard then when you try to talk about your book and try to give answers,” she says.

Built-in bookshelves were a life’s dream for the author. Credit:Rune Hellestad/Getty

Questions of faith are another constant through Kent’s three books. This, she says, is partly because the lives of women in history were often “curtailed by religion. Or by a values space which was essentially dictated by religious powers.”

As a teenager, Kent began going to church “of my own volition”, but one day – faced with the conservatism from the pulpit (“just the same sort of right-wingish kind of crap”) – she got up, walked out and never returned. Reflecting on the place of the church and faith in her books, she wants to consider the separation between “institutions and the harm they do” and “spirituality in a much bigger, more mysterious sense. Which is absolutely worth celebrating because it is the not knowing which is so glorious.”

Devotion keeps returning to love and our conversation keeps returning there, too. I hear how Kent loves Iceland, she loves to crochet, she loves author Sarah Waters, and she has a “deep love” of the Baby-Sitters Club. She loves her high school boyfriend who is now a pastor. She loved writing this book, she loved trying her hand at screenwriting and would love to do more. She loves the Australian landscape “intensely” and writing about nature, she loves Adelaide. She loves meeting readers on book tours “so much”; she loves talking to fans on social media when these tours can’t happen. Her daughter loves books and reading (“she is the spit of me”, Kent says) – especially, right now, Enid Blyton.

Hannah Kent loves meeting readers on book tours “so much”.

Kent’s house is filled with light and books. From where we sit outside, you can look right through to the living room and to the built-in bookshelves which take over the wall beyond. The shelves are a new addition to the house, and Kent says, her “life’s dream”. From our conversation, though, you can tell her life’s dream was much bigger than the shelves: it’s what this house, this family and this book represents. “In so many ways this was the book that I wrote for Heidi,” she says. “It’s just one big giant love letter to her.”

Devotion will be published by Picador on October 26.

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