Book Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

After enjoying The Pull of the Stars so much recently, I decided to read Emma Donoghue’s most recent book. While also set in Ireland, Haven reminded me more of The Wonder in the way Donoghue explores questions of faith and Irish Catholocism in particular.

Artt is a well-known and highly respected monk when he arrives at a well-to-do monastery. There he has a dream. A vision from God, he is sure. He believes he is to set out and found a new monastery, a place utterly removed from the rest of humanity and the sin that plagues mankind. In Artt’s vision, it is revealed to him who should accompany him – two unlikely monks from the monastery where he visits. Trian is young, earnest but awkward, left at the monastery by his family when he was only 13-years-old. Cormac is an old man, a late convert to the faith after surviving a miraculous physical accident. Together the 3 of them set off with the bare minimum of supplies to find an island that will match what Artt saw in his dreams.

Together they settle on the Great Skellig (and Donoghue’s afterword explains that this is inspired by and based on a real place). The island is formidable and barely hospitable, heavily populated by birds so unused to humans that the monks can simply pick them up and wring their necks. Their supplies are limited but, largely with Cormac’s expertise and Trian’s knowledge of the sea, they begin to form a homestead of sorts. Artt’s focus, however, is entirely on the spiritual. He insists they carve a stone cross to dominate the island before they have built themselves a shelter and he prioritizes the copying of religious manuscripts over their daily physical needs. As monks, Trian and Cormac have sworn a vow of obedience to him, their prior and any word of contradiction is seen as not just insubordination but spiritual sin. As winter approaches though, it is clear that the tensions between the three are only growing.

As always, the depth of Donoghue’s research is on full display. Every detail feels authentic and believable. Every choice that each character makes feels true both to the time and to who they have been established to be. Most of the book is set on the Great Skellig and with only three characters and yet the pace never lags and these three men never feel boring.

What impressed me most in the end though is that Donoghue offers up these three characters as entirely realistic creations. It would be easy to cast Artt as simply the villain, a deranged religious fanatic. But he isn’t the villain here, even when he is what increasingly stands between life and death for the others. Along with the other two men, Donoghue gives us glimpses into his mind, his thoughts and what drives him, making his actions feel frustrating but true to who he is and thus more understandable. This is the fifth book I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and she hasn’t missed yet!

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue”

  1. I didn’t realize this author has had so many books published. All I’ve ever heard about is The Room. There is already a book announced for 2023, and it looks like her oldest work is from 1989, titled Lesbian Love Stories.

    1. She’s super prolific! She’s written something like 10 books since Room came out! And her historical fiction feels heavily researched so I don’t know how she has the time.

    1. She’s a lovely writer to get into too because she writes so much and it seems like lately there is always a new book out by her!

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