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.

Book Review: The Famished Heart by Nicola White – an unusual crime story set in 1980s Dublin

I picked up The Famished Heart, initially thinking it would be a bit like Dervla McTiernan’s brilliant crime series featuring Cormac Reilly. They both have lead police officers who don’t fit in with their colleagues and a boss who probably doesn’t like them either. You get a good deal of police station politics in both. But this book is more of a slow-burner that reminded me of some of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels (now there’s a blast from the past!) with its focus on a small community and psychological drama.

We’ve got three main narrative points of view. Father Timoney is the unlucky priest called to visit two middle-aged sisters in his parish who haven’t been seen in weeks. What he finds would shock even the most seasoned of clerics: the Macnamara sisters have apparently starved to death, possibly willingly for religious reasons. Timoney has his own problems too. He’s only been in his parish a few months, has a dwindling congregation, an unheated church that is an architectural monstrosity, and a spiteful housekeeper. Throw in back pain and a lack of confidence and he’s really struggling.

Frances Macnamara is the sister that got away. She’s a glamorous actress who, now in her forties, is finding it hard to get well-paid roles, leaving her strapped for cash. She’s in New York when she receives the news of her sisters’ deaths. Flying home she teams up with a niece who was supposed to look in on her aunts, but there’d been a falling out with the older sister and she’s living in a grungy flat. So there’s nowhere for Frances to stay but in the house where it all happened. They soon get the keys because the police don’t think the deaths suspicious.

Well, Detective Inspector Vincent Swan thinks they’re suspicious; someone’s wiped any fingerprints from the door handles and made a crude arrangement of some ornamental animals. But Swan’s being stood down while there’s an investigation into police brutality. He’s not a violent man, unlike the two officers also under investigation, the kind of officers he really doesn’t get along with. Just as well Detective Garda Gina Considine is on the job. She’s the only female officer on the team and suffers sexism on a daily basis – this is Dublin in the ’80s, after all. But she’s smart and a good pairing for sensitive and thoughtful Swan.

Just when you think this story is all about religious mania – and to some extent it is – another death leads our two detectives in another direction and the plot really heats up. You finish the book thinking this is a satisfying mystery, but you’ve also come to know the characters really well. White writes about relationships superbly – throwing people together and seeing how they spark off each other and then come to new realisations. This makes you want to check in with Vincent Swan another time, so it’s good news that this is the start of a series. The second book is an earlier novel and book number three is out next year. A Famished Heart scores a four out of five from me.