Staff review : Haven by Emma Donoghue

Manus from Kilbeggan Library reviews Haven by Emma Donoghue in this staff review.

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Around the year 600, three monks set out on a quest to find an island off the west coast of Ireland where humans have never set foot, there to build an outpost of the Christian faith.

Artt is the leader and the visionary, learned and confident, but with an authoritarian streak. We glimpse it in his ‘an odd shiver of delight’ when he is addressed as ‘father’ for the first time.

His two companions are the young Trian, who was sent to be a monk by his family (for reasons which, don’t worry, we will learn), and the old Cormac, who lived a whole pagan life of war, love and grief before he ever became a monk.

We follow these characters into isolation on the spectacularly steep and barren island that we now call Skellig Michael. It is a battle against the unforgiving elements merely to survive and build shelters. On top of that, they have to write manuscripts and to say prayers seven times a day. As the story goes on, one of the monks shows his true colours as a cruel fanatic. Sharing a tiny island with him becomes the greatest challenge of all.

They must ‘hate the world,’ but when Trian is awestruck by the beauty of nature we see him begin to backslide into pagan ideas. Later we catch him worshipping a tree.

Most of the novel consists of the monks’ struggle against nature. Here Donoghue has really done her homework. If she ever gets shipwrecked on a desert island, she will get along just fine. Her monks know how to make houses of uncemented stone; to develop scraps and waste into soil; to fish and to hunt. It’s utterly engrossing as Donoghue describes step-by-step how they build a little community.

This is a pre-modern world in which manufactured items cannot be taken for granted. For example, red ink is made from a rare mineral dug out of mines in Spain. The monks consider the multitudes of calves who have been skinned to make their manuscript paper. This lends weight and texture to the world.

Knowledge, too, is valuable and has its laborious lineage: Artt copied his bible by hand from a manuscript that was in its turn ‘written out long before my time, in a Coptic refuge at an oasis in the desert mountains of the Red Sea.’ I found that awe-inspiring.

Though the novel is authentic, Artt is a familiar type from our own time; he calls to mind some internet lifestyle guru with his strict dietary rules, his fast days, raw meat and overnight oats – not all terrible things in themselves, until they are coloured with his self-righteousness. Trian and Cormac try to plan for their survival as winter closes in, but Artt prefers mindfulness: ‘These mopers, Artt thinks – always wondering what will become of them… can’t they hear the music of eternity?

There are no caricatures among our tiny cast. But Donoghue admits in an afterword that the real monks of Skellig Michael would have been ‘more pragmatic than my invented characters.’ This lack of pragmatism was, for me, a weakness of the novel. The ending is made less powerful by the assertion that one character is simply ‘a lunatic.’ With that character’s extreme actions, the novel is diminished as an ‘origin story’ for Skellig Michael and as a comment on religion and Ireland’s relationship to it. I think this was a necessary price to pay in order to make the novel more focused. This it is still a great and gripping adventure story, and in the top tier of historical novels for authenticity and immersion.

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