Haven by Emma Donoghue

(Little, Brown and Company)

Review by David Starkey

The opening of Haven (the title’s similarity to “heaven” is hardly accidental) has the feel of a classic adventure story. A well-traveled, scholarly monk named Artt appears in Cluain Mhic Nóis, a seventh-century Irish monastery, and has a dream that he must take two men with him and head downriver and out into the ocean, where he will find an uninhabited island that will be their home. He imagines this haven ultimately becoming the foundation for a new monastery, one devoted to God in all His purity. “A small brotherhood,” Artt declares of the initial three-person endeavor, “but mighty in its faith.”

The two men he chooses are young Trian, who was placed at the monastery by his family when was thirteen, and old Cormac, who became a monk after the death of his wife and children from the plague. They are an odd trio, but as they leave the monastery and set sail, both Cormac and Trian turn out to be extraordinarily handy when it comes to the skills one might need to start a new life. Trian can swim—a rarity at the time in Ireland—is handy with a boat, and can scale rock walls like a lizard. Cormac’s life experience has taught him to be a decent cook, an able craftsman, an inventive farmer, and an inveterate teller of the sort of stories that come in handy when trying to survive on the edge of the known world.

At first, Trian and Cormac’s deference to their “master” Artt feels appropriate and sincere. Both men are true believers, and Artt’s belief in his vision does, indeed, take them to the sort of place he saw in his dream: Great Skelling an island off the Coast of Kerry, which Arrt reckons is “the most pointed place on earth; horns, spears, spikes, and blades of rocks as far as he can see.” The island is also home to tens of thousands of birds—puffins, auks, gannets, shearwaters, cormorants and terns—which create a racket so great that sometimes Artt believes he will go mad.

The world of the monks is a grueling and more deliberate one than ours, and at times this makes for a slow read. While it is interesting, for instance, to learn how to make a mattress of fescue grass, sea campion and spoonwort, or how to skin an auk, or copy a codice, life on the island proceeds at an often monotonous pace. Indeed, in the long middle of the book, when Artt, Cormac and Trian are establishing themselves on Great Skellig, readers may feel–like the monks themselves–that it takes forever to accomplish what, on the mainland, would be considered the simplest of tasks.

However, as is always the case with Donoghue’s fiction, patience is rewarded, and it gradually becomes apparent that Artt’s mantra, “God will provide,” is mistaken. In Artt’s God-centric vision, everything on the island is there to be harvested, consumed, and ultimately destroyed by man, and as resources become scarcer when summer turns to autumn, tensions mount. The ending is satisfying and believable, and, if nothing else, Haven is a first-rate travel book about one of the world’s most striking locations.