Reading guide for The Devil Latch

by Sonya Hartnett

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2008

Written by Mats Berggren

About the author

Australian author Sonya Hartnett made her publishing debut at the age of just fifteen with a novel that she had written two years earlier. The painfully shy girl who had always felt she was weird became, in her own words, a loud-mouthed child who appeared on TV.

She soon realised that her debut book was not as great as she thought and she believes she has devoted large parts of her life to trying to write books that prove she is better than the reputation of her first book would suggest – books that prove she can be a real author. To say she has succeeded would be an understatement. Hartnett is one of the authors currently charting a new course for young adult fiction in terms of both form and content, while constantly pushing the boundaries of her own authorship. No two works are alike.

Themes and motifs recur in her writing, but each work has a different focus.
She admits that many of her books follow a Gothic tradition, which most people would associate with horror fiction. However, her Gothic sensibilities reference the American South and authors such as William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, where haunted houses and graveyards are replaced with small towns and decrepit farmsteads, and counts and damsels in distress become isolated, uneducated rural folk.

The idea is that readers should switch off their impulse to be judgemental in order to explore layers of existence that would otherwise be overlooked. She wants to shock her readers, make them uncomfortable, confront the most powerful aspects of life – evil, life, love, death.

A common feature of the Gothic novel is that the past casts its shadow over the present – via family secrets and curses; others include the eerily alluring anti-heroes and the fragile women, objects of man’s desire. Hartnett herself feels that she has created few interesting female characters.

The author sees madness as a rich literary seam to be mined. Portraying a person as in some way mad frees the writer, expanding the boundaries of credible behaviour. But it must not be taken too far – these people have to feel familiar, like neighbours. That is what makes them threatening. Hartnett repeatedly depicts situations of power and dependence in small, close-knit groups, such as a family or friends.

Animals and nature provide some sort of counterpoint in the books. Many of the characters have strong bonds with a pet, although the relationship with the natural world is more complicated – it can be both liberating and lethal. Sonya Hartnett is very precise in her descriptions, detailing all the names of the flora and fauna. She seeks to show how we are part of nature and how important that is. The most prominent message of all for her is that all living things should be respected and treated well.

Another theme is the lost child – the risk that children might disappear in the desert is very real in Australia. But children can be lost in other ways too. There is a clear message that defenceless creatures – children or animals – should not be made to suffer, abandoned, frightened or badly treated. And yet they are – in the books and in reality. Beneath the surface there is a throbbing anger at the state of the world.

The subject matter and the complexity of the novels bring many of them close to adult fiction, blurring the distinction. In Hartnett’s view, she tries to offer her young audience material that can expand their consciousness. “Would a portion of the audience actually prefer me to write of boy meeting girl, boy getting girl, boy losing girl? If so, then that portion of my audience is not my audience.”

About the book

The Devil Latch (1996) is one of the books in which Sonya Hartnett delves deep into the psyche of a young person who has a difficult and traumatic past. The book’s surface plot is simple and could be summed up in a few sentences. There are only a few dramatic incidents, although they hold considerable power. The emphasis lies instead with the psychological conflicts between and within the characters.

What makes the book unforgettable is the portrait of the lead character, Kitten Latch. From the outside, he appears gifted, handsome, manipulative and quite malevolent. But the reader is drawn into his mind and meets the demons that are plaguing him, with memories and flashbacks showing us what made him the person he is today. This creates a much more rounded picture of the character.

The portrayal of Kitten is hard for the reader to bear – treat a person badly and they will not turn out well. Sonya Hartnett breaks new ground, going further than any other author in modern literature for young adults.

Things to think about after reading

Why has Kitten Latch turned out the way he has?

How do you interpret the final chapter? Where is Kitten?

In what way could Kitten be seen as a lost child, as described in the presentation of Sonya Hartnett?

Is The Devil Latch a Gothic novel? Why/why not?

How does the book reflect her ideas about madness being a rich literary seam?

What does the depiction of Aimee’s relationship with Curtis and Kitten say about what loving relationships can be like?

What do you feel are the roles of animals and the natural world in the novel?

Do you think Kitten killed Curtis’s cat?

Does this book contain any other of the themes that are considered typical of the author’s work?

This Reading Guide was written by Mats Berggren, member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

Further reading about Sonya Hartnett