I’ve read four books by Emma Donoghue now and each one has been completely different from the one before! Haven is a particularly unusual novel and even after finishing it I’m still not quite sure what I really think of it.
The setting is 7th century Ireland and the novel begins with a stranger arriving at the monastery of Cluain Mhic Nóis on the banks of the River Shannon. His name is Artt and he claims to have had a dream, a vision sent by God:
‘An island in the sea. I saw myself there. As if I were a bird or an angel, looking down on the three of us.’
‘I was with an old monk, and a young one.’ The Abbot shows no sign of understanding him. ‘The dream is an instruction to withdraw from the world. To set out on pilgrimage with two companions, find this island, and found a monastic retreat.’
Artt persuades the Abbot to let him take a small boat and go in search of the island, accompanied by two other monks: the elderly Cormac, who came to religion late in life after losing his loved ones to plague, and Trian, a young man given to the monastery by his parents as a child. The three monks set off in the boat and eventually come to the uninhabited rocky island of Skellig Michael, where they prepare to live in seclusion together for the rest of their lives.
There’s really not much more to the plot than that, but what could have been an extremely boring book is surprisingly absorbing in the hands of Emma Donoghue. I found it interesting to see how the three men set about establishing their own little settlement on the island and how different their views were on what is necessary for survival. Skellig Michael is a harsh, remote and inhospitable place; looking at photos, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live there, but monks (not the ones in the novel, who are fictional) really did build a monastery there. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was used as a location for two of the recent Star Wars films.
Cormac, the most practical of the three, believes that their immediate priority should be to build shelter for themselves ready for the winter, but Artt – or ‘the Prior’ as he now calls himself – insists that there will be time for this later and that their time should first be spent on constructing an altar, a chapel and a stone cross. Meanwhile Trian is kept busy fishing and capturing the puffins and other seabirds that will provide them with meat and eggs, as well as fuel and fat for candles. I should tell you that there are a lot of graphic descriptions of gutting fish and killing birds, which I felt became repetitive and excessive – but I think maybe Donoghue has a message here for us, a warning regarding humans’ destruction of the environment and the wildlife that shares our planet:
But Trian struggles to believe that such a variety of lightsome and beautiful birds have formed in their translucent ovoid caskets, broken out of them, walked, cried out to their brethren, taken flight, over and over for these thousands of years…all so Trian can now fling them down to flame and char on a cooking fire.
I disliked Artt more and more as the story progressed and he became increasingly fanatical and adamant that ‘God would provide’, refusing to listen to the concerns of the other two monks. I also found my attention wandering whenever Cormac began to tell one of his many stories about the saints. The ideal reader for this book would have a much stronger interest in Christianity than I do, I think! There’s a revelation near the end which I had suspected all along, and although it came as no surprise to me, it does provide a turning point in the story – but just as things were starting to get exciting, the book ended. It’s a strange novel, as I said, and won’t necessarily appeal to people who’ve enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s other books (it’s nothing like the other three I’ve read – Room, Frog Music or The Wonder), but it’s a short, quick read and worth picking up if anything I’ve said about it has piqued your interest!
Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 14/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.
This is book 42/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.