Emma Donoghue is probably best known for her novel Room in which a woman and her child are kept captive. There are some thematic similarities with her new book Haven, although the subject matter could not be more different. Set in the 7th Century, Haven explores some of the earliest religious settlements on Skellig Michael, a tiny, rocky outcrop off the coast of Ireland probably best known now as the home of Luke Skywalker in the latest Star Wars films. In telling what is essential a survival story Donoghue digs into a range of themes including religion and the nature of belief, environmental protection, and power of the patriarchy.
Haven opens at an Irish Monastery, ascetic monk Artt has had a vision that involves him taking an old and young monk and establishing a religious retreat on a remote island. The Abbott, happy to be rid of the more fundamentalist Artt, sends him off with Trian, a young monk sent the monastery as a teenager, and Cormac, a veteran who came to religion late in life. The three end up on Skellig Michael, a rocky island off the coast of Ireland that has little soil or vegetation and little flat land but thousands of sea birds. While Trian and Cormac seek to make their new home habitable, Artt’s focus is purely on his monastery and the copying of religious texts and he constantly prioritises this mission over the group’s basic survival.
Once this scenario is established, Haven can only be described as a survival story and a bit of a descent into madness as Trian and Cormac struggle to be true to their vows all the while understanding that their situation is becoming ever more precarious. That they survive at all is down to their exploitation of the local wildlife, which the Prior assures his companions is part of God’s plan:
…the Prior tells Cormac to put the great auk on to roast…
The notion seems to make Trian uneasy. ‘We shouldn’t take more than we need, though, surely Father?’…
He corrects Trian… ‘This whole island’s like one great banquet table that God’s spread for us.’
And as that bounty starts to diminish, the whole endeavour also becomes an environmental parable.
Haven is carried by its characters. This is the story of two men in thrall to a third, of a small community driven by a distinct power imbalance. Despite it all, Artt is not evil or malicious, he is a true believer. That said, he does, like any charismatic cult leader before or since, twist his belief to serve his own ends. Cormac and Trian desperately want to believe, to find some purpose in their lives, but they are also much more practical and have a desire to be in the world not apart from it.
While this is not necessarily a true story, monks seeking solitude did settle on this island and others like it, although they did not cut themselves off as completely from the mainland. Donoghue uses this truth to dig deeper into a number of issues that are as current now as they were in the seventh century. So that in Haven, she has delivered a resonant story that also strongly evokes a time and place.