Book Review: Haven: A Novel by Emma Donoghue

Haven is a unique and extraordinary book. It is in the nature of a quest, a hero’s journey undertaken by three monks in the seventh century in Ireland. A man named Artt, a renowned visitor to a monastery on the mainland, claims to have had a dream in which he and two followers embark upon a journey in a small boat down the river to the sea and there discover an isolated island they can dedicate to the Lord. He chooses Cormac, an old monk with abundant practical skills, and a young monk named Trian to aid him in his search. With few belongings they travel southwest along the river and out into the open Atlantic Ocean, where they find Great Skellig, a rocky island full of crags and cliffs.

Donoghue has based her novel on historical and geographical facts. Great Skellig, also known as Skellig Michael, is a real place, and the remains of an ancient monastery rest on a plateau high above the sea. If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve probably seen it, because scenes of Luke Skywalker’s exile in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi were filmed there. The movies offer a good view of the grandeur and isolation of the steep, forbidding island.

In Haven, Donoghue posits that the three monks in her story are the first to reach the island. They climb the steep hillsides and cliffs without the benefit of stairs and sleep out in the open air until they have constructed a stone shelter. To survive, they plant a garden in the meager soil, go fishing, and hunt for seabirds and their eggs. Whatever they need they have to find on the almost bare rock.

The conflict in the tale comes from Artt’s arrogance, pomposity, and self-righteousness. The other two men have sworn obedience to him, but he cares little about their trust and devotion. Instead of seeing to the needs of his miniscule flock, which is struggling to survive in a harsh environment, he cares more about sculpting stone crosses, building a chapel, and copying passages of scripture. He refuses to allow the monks to make trips back to the mainland to trade for food, fuel, and other needs, instead claiming that God will provide while their supplies dwindle and disappear. For a time they are able to improvise, using driftwood for fuel and then the bodies of oil-rich birds, but when the weather begins to turn chill and most of the birds leave, they are left without sufficient sustenance or the means to cook whatever they manage to find. Through it all, Artt remains haughty and indifferent, claiming that the hardships his monks endure are good for their souls and doing nothing to alleviate their suffering. In the end… Well, I won’t give away the ending because it is dynamic, unforeseen, and inevitable.

This book succeeds well on two levels. First of all, it is a fascinating tale of an adventurous quest and survival in a forbidding environment. In addition, it vividly portrays the conflict between legalism and grace, and between self-righteousness and mercy, as opposing ways to look at religious issues. All in all, it is a powerful, well-written book and I recommend it.

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