Haven is perhaps the shortest Emma Donoghue book I’ve ever read. Compared to long sagas such as Frog Music and Room, it’s a hop, skip and a jump lengthwise but packs in her trademark sense of worldbuilding and character observation, making it a slow read. But if you’re a fan, then it provides more of the same dark, dramatic Donoghue you like.
It’s seventh century Ireland. Nineteen-year-old Trian, a young and barely grown monk, joins a team of two other monks to strike out for an unspoiled and isolated island so that they might live free and isolated from sin. Going along with Trian in this mission is the elderly Cormac, who hopes to grow crops on their island, and the renegade “living saint” Arrt, converter of pagans and man of incorruptible vaules, who hopes to shed the influence of the wicked world and pray in solitude without the luxury of the abbey surrounding him. They are being led by Arrt’s vision, which he claims is from God, demanding they create a monastery held apart from the wicked outside world. Released from the Abbot of Cluain Mhic Nóis, they set about settling and founding their own order in isolation in the middle of the ocean.
The three men eventually claim an island heavily populated with birds but not much else. They then set about establishing a way and place to worship, but Arrt’s impossible standards bump up against the more practical suggestions harbored by Trian and Cormac. He forces them to carve an enormous cross, and set about creating chapel. The seasons change, soon isolation, hunger and illness begin to wear on the men. Skellig Michael seemed like a paradise; but might it truly be a hell?
As always, Donoghue leans heavily on character studies and interpersonal conflict to make her point about religion, isolation, and human desire. This is a deep, dark book, and the love story is between our monks and God – and/or the real, waking world.
This is not a romantic book, and it’s not a sweet book. These monks do terrible things to each other, and most of the heavy stuff is meted out by Arrt, for whom there is no wickedness too small. He is a God-man and the monks are bound via vows of silence and obedience to him, until he does something unforgivable and they must forsake him. The moral message is blunt and obvious.
If you enjoy any of Donoghue’s previous books, you’ll love Haven, but be prepared for ambiguity, darkness, and some good old fashioned introspection.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier