Earlier this year, I was thrilled to get an advanced copy of Haven by Emma Donoghue, due out in two weeks. Set in Ireland, it takes readers back in time to about 600 C.E., onto small, isolated rock of an island. It follows a trio of monks as they attempt to make this harsh island their sanctuary.
Back in early 2017, I had loved Emma Donoghue’s novel The Wonder, and for the past two years, I’ve been meaning to read her latest release,The Pull of the Stars. While Haven is rather different from most of the novels I read, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a book I’ll be buying in physical form on release day!
Special thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown for providing me with an ARC of this book!
It’s around the year 600 C.E. in a monastery in Ireland when a priest named Artt receives a message from God in a dream: He and two other monks must travel to the Atlantic Ocean, find an uninhabited island, and found a new monastery there. Artt chooses Cormac (an old man who only became a monk 15 years ago) and Trian (a teenager whose parents sent him to be a monk six years earlier). The trio spend several days in a boat, making their way through Ireland’s rivers until reaching the southeastern ocean and eventually drifting toward a small, rocky island. Despite its rough terrain and limited natural resources, the three monks make it their new home and sanctuary. But how long can the island sustain them? Will their isolation really bring them closer to God… or farther away than ever?
Going into Haven, I wasn’t sure what to expect. On the one hand, I’d loved the author’s 2016 novel, The Wonder. On the other hand, several early reviews for Haven were middling, describing the story as slow and uneventful. While I have a particular love for Ireland and an interest in the regional history, I’m also an atheist, and so wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy reading about three monks on a religious mission.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised: I really loved Haven. In some ways it is an odd book, and it’s unlike most of the novels I read. Although some of the complaints I saw in other reviews are accurate descriptions of the book… those elements didn’t bother me at all.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Haven is Emma Donoghue’s descriptive prose. She paints a vivid picture of Ireland, its landscape, and its flora and fauna. I loved the scenes at sea, with the three monks helplessly drifting through open waters until coming upon an uninviting, rocky pair of islands – or as Trian calls them, skelligs. (Indeed, the trio ended up on the real Irish island called Skellig Michael or the Great Skellig.) She draws up powerful images of the harsh island: craggy, hard to navigate, and with hardly any soil suitable for growing food. I also enjoyed getting to know the birds living there, including species that are now extinct.
Apart from one or two minor characters early on, Haven is fully focused on our three monks: Artt (the “Prior”), Cormac, and Trian. They have such different personalities and perspectives, yet they need to work well together in order to survive on their new island. Right away, though, they do butt heads, especially Artt and Cormac. But Artt is in charge, so the other two must defer to him, even when his commands make little practical sense. Between the three of them, I really liked Cormac and Trian. Cormac is a kind old man who loves to tell stories; Trian is a dreamy but hard-working teenager with big ideas. Artt… well, let’s just say he’s a bit more severe, inflexible, and even irrational, especially as time wears on.
Being focused on three monks founding a monastery, Haven is, naturally, a book that emphasizes Christianity. All three characters believe in God and know the Bible inside and out. They often quote different verses, they live according to religious doctrine, and they devote much time to religious pursuits: building a cross and an altar; transcribing the Bible; praying multiple times a day. However, what I especially liked was the different views they each had on Christianity and the debates they had.
Cormac and Trian each have views (old-fashioned? Pagan?) that don’t necessarily match up with the Bible. Artt condemns these ideas, but the two monks can’t help but retain some of them. Trian grew up loving shellfish; he can’t understand why the Bible declares shellfish “unclean” and forbids eating them. Later on, Cormac starts to consider that Artt’s overly strict decisions might be nonsensical. As an atheist myself, I liked seeing that critical thinking and reevaluation of what makes sense and what doesn’t. Where is the line between trusting God to provide for you and you needing to use the resources available for your survival? At what point does devoutness become dangerous?
There is an interesting revelation towards the end of the book which made me love it even more. How the characters dealt with this information only confirmed my liking of Cormac and Trian and my disliking for Artt.
Although Haven does spend a lot of time on the seemingly mundane – watching the three monks find food, build shelter, and so on – I enjoyed the rugged and contemplative nature of it. Nearly the whole story is set outdoors, and what may seem idyllic at first quickly reveals itself to be far more menacing. Slowly but surely, the three characters’ true natures is revealed, and it culminates in satisfying, if open-ended, conclusion.
Haven may not be for everyone, but if you’re interested in three monks in 600 C.E. Ireland making a home on a harsh island, contemplating religion and survival, and escaping from the dangers of an overzealous man, this is a quietly engaging read. It’s thought-provoking and fascinating, with a delicate balance between a soft style of storytelling and a severe setting. I was fully immersed and enjoyed the whole novel.
This is only my second time reading Emma Donoghue, and I’ve been impressed with both books. I plan to read The Pull of the Stars and Akin next, so stay tuned for my reviews of those and more!
Get the Book
You can pre-order Haven here – it will be available on August 23, 2022 as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|Haven by Emma Donoghue|
|Number of Pages||272|
|Format I Read||ebook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||August 23, 2022|
In seventh-century Ireland, a scholar and priest called Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind. Taking two monks—young Trian and old Cormac—he rows down the river Shannon in search of an isolated spot on which to found a monastery. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find an impossibly steep, bare island inhabited by tens of thousands of birds, and claim it for God. In such a place, what will survival mean?
Three men vow to leave the world behind them. They set out in a small boat for an island their leader has seen in a dream, with only faith to guide them. What they find is the extraordinary island now known as Skellig Michael. Haven has Emma Donoghue’s trademark world-building and psychological intensity—but this story is like nothing she has ever written before.
About the Author
Born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1969, I am the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue (the literary critic). I attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one eye-opening year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 I earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin (unfortunately, without learning to actually speak French). I moved to England, and in 1997 received my PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. From the age of 23, I have earned my living as a writer, and have been lucky enough to never have an ‘honest job’ since I was sacked after a single summer month as a chambermaid. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 I settled in London, Ontario, where I live with Chris Roulston and our son Finn and daughter Una.
More Reviews of Emma Donoghue’s Books
For a few months, I kept eyeing Emma Donoghue’s novel The Wonder every time I went to a book store, and I finally bought it…
More Books by Emma Donoghue
At the end of last year, I enjoyed reading Lucy Foley’s debut thriller, The Hunting Party. I knew I’d need to go back and read…
Amy Harmon’s What the Wind Knows gently fluttered into my awareness last year when I saw it featured in some bookish email newsletters. But while…
My April reading challenge is to read books set in Paris, France. Following The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley, the second book I finished was…