Who among us doesn’t enjoy the idea of escaping the hectic pace of existence for a faraway, uninhabited island—a haven from life’s challenges and woes? For Artt, the enigmatic scholar and priest at the center of Emma Donoghue’s new novel Haven, set in seventh-century Ireland, the decision to turn his back on the sinful human world and seek refuge from its many temptations is a divine instruction. God has spoken to Artt in a dream, calling him forward to travel from the Cluain Mhic Nóis monastery where he is visiting as a revered guest, to “an island in the sea.” His mission, he believes, is to “withdraw from the world. To set out on pilgrimage with two companions, find this island, and found a monastic retreat.”
The two companions in question are an old monk, Cormac, who having survived the plague and a crushing blow to the skull, devoted himself to Christ, and Trian, a young monk, “ungainly and odd,” handed over at the age of thirteen by his parents to the monastery where they believed he would be safe. Later in the novel, Donoghue reveals what may have prompted them to give up their son, a surprising twist in the story that highlights the hypocrisy of those who piously follow the scripture to the exclusion and harm of their fellow humans. Once Artt obtains permission from the monastery’s Abbott to depart with the two monks, the three enter into a fellowship and begin their voyage by boat down the River Shannon and out into the Atlantic Ocean in search of the untouched island God has intended for them: “If an island’s ever been settled, that means it’s too fertile for us,” Artt declares. “No, our gleaming rock will be set apart from men and all their wiles. Bleak and harsh—a desert place in the ocean.”
Donoghue’s historical fiction typically takes its cues from events of actual historical record, and as she acknowledges in her author’s note, Haven is no exception. The island that the three men eventually settle on and christen Great Skellig is an imagined version of Skellig Michael, one of two remote islands off the coast of County Kerry in the southwest of Ireland, where a monastery existed as early as the year 600. Artt, Cormac, and Trian’s journey, as Donoghue notes, is an “entirely fictional story of a first landing party.” Great Skellig, like its real counterpart, is a craggy, steep, pyramid-shaped, “all up and down” island, home only to great flocks of birds. Seemingly undeterred by the considerable practical challenges the uninhabitable island presents, Artt claims the island as his, announcing, “The higher up, the closer to heaven. On this island’s peaks, our prayers will be halfway to God’s ears already.”
What follows the misguided decision to settle the island is where the novel’s tension and suspense really begin to crystallize. In classic Donoghue narrative style, it all unfolds in a confined space under cramped conditions—in this case at the top of a spike of rock in the sea. The business of survival is an all-consuming activity requiring substantial resourcefulness, and it quickly becomes apparent that arrogant Prior Artt’s humble underlings, Cormac and Trian, are the only two with any skills or common sense. As they set about securing whatever water, food, and shelter they can find or create, Artt strolls around insisting that God will provide everything they need and that their efforts would be better put toward carving a stone cross, building an altar, and copying the Bible: “Time to up and wage war on the devil with pen and ink, Brother.”
As the summer turns to fall and the conditions on the island deteriorate, the impossible task of trying to sustain life takes its harsh toll on the physical and mental state of the men, convincingly conveyed by Donoghue’s raw descriptions and her exceptional skill with emotionally authentic dialogue. In one particularly charged moment, Artt chops down a lone rowan tree (appropriately, the rowan has a long association in folklore with paganism, witchcraft, and magic), enraging Trian: “The Prior holds up what remains. Racked and twisted, a slanted vertical and two crooked, half-stripped arms springing out. ‘A mighty cross to fix to the top of our chapel.’ He roars it: ‘She was the only tree on the island!’ ‘And how favoured, now, to form the holy image of that cross on which Christ won our souls from hell.’ Trian’s so close now, within arm’s reach of the hatchet. He could snatch it up in half a second.”
Much like in Room, The Wonder, and The Pull of the Stars, Haven’s plot action is limited, allowing instead for the story’s focus to be placed fully on the volatile dynamic escalating between the three characters as they confront life-threatening circumstances. The novel’s tension reaches its peak with the painful revelation of Trian’s secret, propelling the narrative to its dramatic if predictable end. Most striking in Haven’s conclusion is the emergence of Cormac—a self-effacing latecomer to Christianity—as the real leader and man of God, and a pointed message from Donoghue about what “true fellowship” really means in the face of Artt’s religious fanaticism.
by Emma Donoghue
Little Brown and Company
Published August 23rd, 2022
Dana Hansen is a writer, editor, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, Literary Review of Canada, The Winnipeg Review, France’s Books magazine, Australia's Westerley magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario, and is the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Review of Books.