Haven, by Emma Donoghue

Three monks set sail in a boat. Thus begins Emma Donaghue’s intensely focused novel set in a religious community during the Dark Ages. Artt is a middle-aged giant of a man whose extreme piety and spiritual experiences set him apart as a saint. When he has a vision in the night, he wakes the abbot with a demand that he let him depart from the monastery for an uncharted island with two brother monks. Not just random men, though. He requires Cormac, a battle-scarred older man who is a recent convert, and young Trian, an innocent young monk whose childhood by the sea will prove invaluable.

Unquestioning obedience was assumed for clergy in those days, but eventually Cormac and Trian realize that Artt is not headed for a particular island, but rather he depends on the Lord to lead them to the right bit of land. After passing by every inhabited site they see, he pulls up on a rocky cliff of a place, with less than one inch of soil, covered with birds of every kind screaming and flapping. Cormac tries to grow vegetables, and when Trian is unable to catch many fish, Artt sets him to killing the birds for food. Artt does not want them to trade with other settlements, nor does he want them to build shelters for themselves, but he does want Trian to begin copying manuscripts for hours each day. Cormac and Trian silently repent for their own lack of faith when compared to this incredibly holy man.

Emma Donoghue wrote this quietly disturbing novel during the pandemic, and it is certainly a study of the effects of isolation on individuals and small communities. Although it is a fictional story, it is set on the actual island of Skellig Michael, a rocky island off the coast of Ireland that shows archeological traces of a small monastic settlement. Donoghue pursues a slow pace, with time to drill deeply into the inner world of each of these three very different men and to observe the struggle that Cormac and Trian endure as their lifelong beliefs crash into their dawning fear and horror.

One might think that fourteen hundred years would remove the reader from the emotions of the story, but history is replete with powerful leaders who have manipulated their followers into performing acts they would have abhorred just a few years earlier. Even in our own small lives, there are always authoritarian narcissists scheming to gain control over groups of willing admirers, and often we don’t wake up and break the spell before innocent people suffer.

Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room was about two people locked in a small shed. This novel is similarly claustrophobic and compelling, even though it takes place on an uninhabited island in the middle of the wild, wind-swept sea.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel from @LittleBrown, which will be published on August 23, 2022. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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