Book Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue – a novel about the dark side of devotion and selfless obedience

Every time I pick up a novel by Emma Donoghue, I am amazed by the variety of subject matter as well as the deftness of the storytelling. Haven is her latest book and follows a band of three monks who set out with a few provisions to establish a monastery on an island off the south-west coast of Ireland.

Donoghue takes us back to the seventh century when Arrt, a priest visiting a monastery, has a vision calling him to take with him two monks to set up a retreat on an island. God has shown him which monks to take: Cormac, an elderly, battle scarred monk and the teenage boy Trian. Arrt is a scholar and has a charismatic way about him, so he soon convinces the two to throw in their lot with him, even though they each seem an unlikely choice for such a mission. Feeling chosen gives Cormac a new lease of life and for Trian, sent away from the world by his parents, it also seems a blessing.

For Arrt, the dream is everything and God must have a special purpose for the three. They set out on a perilous journey by boat down the river Shannon and out into the Atlantic Ocean. They fetch up at a rocky outcrop, the Skellig, inhabited by a mass of shrieking seabirds, but for people as inhospitable a place as you could imagine. The island is all steep pinnacles with very few flat areas and very little soil, the single tree an ancient rowan, barely clutching onto life. It is here they are to build a chapel, with only the barest of necessities and as Trian soon finds out, dedicate themselves to copying out the scripture.

So. In open ocean, drifting blind now, and with no way to stop moving through the dark. It is Artt who’s brought them to this extremity, and it’s too late for doubt. ‘Never mind. We won’t founder,’ he assures them. ‘We travel in the palm of God’s hand.’

Trian discovers an interest in observing the birds and the natural world around him. He is tasked with finding food, fishing as well as capturing the tame auks and puffins that are to be a large part of their diet. He is always hungry and earns the pity of Cormac, who lacking physical agility has the knowledge they need to start a garden and build their chapel.

Arrt is a hard task master, always finding fault, even with himself, convinced that this is all God’s will, however difficult things get. He always has as piece of scripture to justify his decisions. How the men are affected by illness, the demands of changing seasons and Arrt’s excessive piety creates a tense read. The characters of the three monks couldn’t be more different and each in his own way is battling demons and at times each other. I found myself drawn into the book, in spite of the grimness of the story – the battle for survival, the demands of faith, the merciless slaughter of wildlife.

Haven is inspired by Skellig Michael, where monks at this time did in fact set up monasteries, building beehive-like structures using the hard slate of the island. It’s also the setting for a scene in the Star Wars movie: “The Force Awakens”. Delving online you can’t help but be amazed by the island and its history and you can see how Donoghue might have imagined this story. It has stuck with me days after I finished the book and I’m sure it will linger in my mind for some time to come. I listened to Haven as an e-audiobook, superbly read by Aidan Kelly – it’s a four star read from me.

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