About the Book:
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, Emma Donoghue’s gripping and moving novel, has her trademark psychological intensity – but this story is like nothing she has ever written before.
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?
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia
Released 30th August 2022
Emma Donoghue just keeps on giving and giving with every novel she releases. She has such versatility, both in terms of style and subject. This was an entirely different novel to anything I’ve read before. For a start, it was set in the seventh-century, and I have never read historical fiction set that far back to date. It was also quite spiritual in the sense that the three characters are Christian monks, their lives dedicated to a faith still quite new to Ireland. For Cormac in particular, the oldest monk of the trio, he still has a living awareness of the old pagan ways, his family died of the plague before he was a Christian and they died as heathens according to his new faith. His conversion to Christianity is not as altruistic as what would normally be required for a monk, there were other factors at play for him. For Trian, the faith is his salvation, as we come to know more about as the novel nears its end. For Artt, the priest and scholar who takes Cormac and Trian with him on his zealous crusade, faith is everything, all he lives for, and unsurprisingly, the means to his ends, that is, the way he intends on immortalising himself.
‘Artt finds himself wondering if perhaps tales will be told about him. Is it arrogance to think it? The legend of how the priest and scholar Artt set off, with just two humble companions, in a small boat. The extraordinary pair of islands he found in the western ocean; how he claimed the higher one for God, and founded a great retreat in the clouds. The glory of the books reproduced there, and then generations of the copies’ offspring. The ceaseless hum of prayer always rising from that little hive.’
‘Privately, Cormac can’t see why the tasks of chapel-building and book-copying are so much holier than food-preserving. And he’s tempted to point out that if you stint men of nourishment, their strength for work will shrink accordingly, and their lives on earth will dwindle. Why can’t the Prior see that this bird meat is a bounty of time in concentrated, fleshly form? But he presses his lips shut. He gave up the right to argue when he vowed obedience. Monks should be humble as slaves.’
The setting of this novel is richly realised. Such an impressive feat to bring a remote and island to life within the context of the seventh-century. The isolation and desolation went hand in hand. As the season changed and the supplies dwindled, the desperation felt by Trian and Cormac was visceral. Artt’s mania was frightening. He truly had lost all sense of reason. The other aspect of this story, which I don’t want to say too much about as it would entirely ruin the novel for you, was handled with sensitivity and I was levelled by the way the story panned out. Cormac is the true hero of this story, I felt it early on but as the novel progressed, it became more and more apparent. I loved the way that conservation was woven into the narrative via Trian’s conscience over the hunting he was implored to do by Artt. You got a sense of looking down a lens through history and seeing it all from the beginning, where we went wrong and why we are where we are today with so many lost species and a dying planet.
‘He finds himself wondering what makes it permissible to eat fish on a fast-day. Is it because fish are less like men than pigs or cows are, so less likely to rouse baser appetites? Trian’s never understood why, in the Garden, at first Adam and Eve ate only fruits and nuts, but after the Flood God told his people, Everything that lives and moves will be meat for you. Well, the important thing’s not the grasp the rule but to obey it.’
‘The Prior insists it was for this that God established birds on the Skelligs in clamorous crowds when he first created the world. But Trian struggles to believe that such a variety of lightsome and beautiful birds have formed in their translucent ovoid caskets, broken out of them, walked, cried out to their brethren, taken flight, over and over for these thousands of years…all so Trian can now fling them down to flame and char on a cooking fire.’
I’d say I’ve reached the point now where there is nothing Emma Donoghue could write that I wouldn’t read. I have a couple more unread on my shelves, time to get them down and get them read so that I can then wait impatiently for her next release. Highly recommended, for so many reasons. This one is sublime literature.
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.