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Reviewed in Australia on 20 November 2021
4★
“Why do men bother with churches at all when instead they might make cathedrals out of sky and water? Better a chorus of birds than a choir. Better an altar of leaves. Baptise me in rainfall and crown me with sunrise. If I am still, somehow, God’s child, let me find grace in the mysteries of bat-shriek and honeycomb.”

Hanne is a teenaged girl from a devout Lutheran family in 19th century Prussia. Her father is a fairly strict elder, her mother is beautiful and loving, but she’s undemonstrative – not a cuddly, hugging sort of mother. Hanne is tall and coltish, with long legs that occasionally stumble.

“Here she is, the cuckoo born to a songbird. The odd, unbeautiful daughter.”

Her twin brother, Matthias, is her closest friend and ally. They used to curl up together as babies and youngsters, but now that they’re in their teens, Matthias sleeps up in the loft, and Hanne is forbidden to join him, although she doesn’t really understand why. They have been a part of each other for so long, that she feels the loss badly.

She doesn’t seem to fret that she has no girlfriends because she has always had Matthias, but now she relies more than ever on the companionship of her beloved forest with all of its sounds and music. She hears the melody and hums and whispers of life everywhere. Her mother does understand this and sometimes sends her to pick mushrooms, knowing that it is a happy respite for Hanne from women’s work at home.

“I was forever nature’s child. It is probably best to say this now. I sought out solitude. Happiness was playing in the whir of grass at the uncultivated edges of our village, listening to the ticking of insects, or plunging my feet into fresh snow until my stockings grew wet and my toes numb.”

A new family moves to the village from a different area. The mother is a Wend, from a Slavic community, and rumour has it she is a ‘Hexe’, a witch. But the father is German, and they have moved to the village to escape religious persecution just as the Lutherans did, so Hanne’s family is prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Their daughter, Thea, is Hanne’s age, but Hanne isn’t interested in meeting more people. She prefers to be alone in the forest, listening to the magic there.

“Suddenly I heard stick-break, the cracking of wood, and someone appeared out of the fog.

She was an apparition walking between hazy columns of trees, her outline growing clearer as she walked. It seemed, for one small moment, that we were underwater. I saw her breath stream as she heaved a crooked weight of kindling; I saw her through the cloud of my own breath and held it, the better to see her.

She looked up and, seeing me watching her, stopped.

I exhaled.

The air hung with water. Held its own breath as we regarded one another.

The girl freed a hand from her bundle of sticks. I watched as she raised it, uncertain, then lifted my own palm.

‘I thought you were a ghost,’ she said. Her voice was low. Unsteady.

‘I thought you were too.’

‘You scared me.’ She hoisted the bundle of kindling onto her hip and approached me through the fog. ‘I’m Thea.’

I remembered myself. ‘Hanne.’

The mist between us thinned as she drew closer. Her face was round, smooth-cheeked, and I saw that her hair was white-blonde, her eyebrows fairer than her skin. It looked, not unpleasantly, as though she had been dusted with flour.

Against the silence of the forest, her footsteps upon the twigs and needles sounded impossibly loud.

‘You’re not, then?’ She continued walking until she was standing an arm’s length away. I could see that her eyelashes were translucent, surrounding eyes that were deeply blue. Fathomless blue, winter’s blue.

‘What?’ Water dripped from the tree above me and fell inside my collar. Trickled down my back.

She smiled. ‘A ghost.’

I noticed then that, while her front teeth were small and neat, those next to them stuck out at an angle. It gave her a hungry, slightly wolfish look.

‘No. I don’t think so. Unless I died in my sleep.’

‘Maybe both of us died in our sleep, and here we are, two ghosts. Telling each other we’re alive.’

I laughed. For a moment I wondered if there could be truth in what she said. The mist had thickened, and with her white hair it looked as though she might suddenly be absorbed into the cloud about us.”

I liked the quick rapport between the two young outsiders, and they do become great friends. Hanne begins spending a lot of time with Thea’s family and comes to understand Thea’s mother’s special skills as a midwife and herbalist.

When the villagers learn that they are no longer safe in this village, they arrange passage on a ship to create a new settlement in Australia. Hanne is stunned when they sail out of the rivers and into the vastness of the open sea.

“The good Lord knows, if I could live any moment of my life over again, it would be that one. Ribs divided, heart devouring the knife-edge of beauty. To see the ocean for the first time, every time. Her hand in mine.

Holy blade that guts us with awe.”

The six-month voyage is horrific. Quarters are cramped, much of the food has gone off, and the water has spoiled. By the time they arrive, their numbers have dwindled due to typhus and other diseases, with bodies buried at sea or onshore, if they were near land.

The girls were separated at the beginning of the trip, as Hanne had to bunk with her mother and baby sister in the family quarters, and Thea was put in the bow of the ship with the single women. Later. as sickness spread, Hanne was moved to the bow as well, and the two proclaimed their devotion to each other.

The writing is exceptional. Here is one descriptions of how Hanne feels when she is at one with a tree or a plant.

“One day I stood beside a banksia loud with honeyeaters and nectar. The music lifting from the tree was so joyful, I joined my voice to its singing, and as I sang, I thought of Thea. I yearned for her and I yearned to be absorbed by the banksia, and in the rising key of all the strains of growth, I felt the banksia admit me and we were together. We knew what it was to bud and blossom and eat the light. I felt the birds upon me like a visitation from God. That is how it happened.”

The author has written the story around comprehensive research of the journey of these European settlers who were fleeing religious persecution, just as the English pilgrims sought freedom in America. The local Peramangk people are credited with saving these uninvited, ill-equipped foreigners from starving, although the immigrants later chased them away from the livestock and gardens they established on Peramangk land. I'm sure the fact that South Australia was settled by free settlers, not convicts as the other states were, wouldn't have made the local indigenous people any happier.

But mainly, this is a love story, with passions running high and overshadowing everything else. These are girls in their teens. There is no question that it is praiseworthy for the writing alone, and I enjoyed the history. I did become impatient with Hanne’s continuous, overflowing of declarations of love. For me, this is a case of sometimes less is more. (I know, I know, this review is long, but almost half of it is Kent’s glorious prose!)

I enjoyed her debut, "Burial Rites", about an historic trial in Iceland, and her second book, "The Good People," about Ireland and its dangerous wee folk. It was a nice change to see her turn her talent to where she grew up herself.
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