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Haven by Emma Donoghue

09 December 2022

Susan Gray considers a monastic novel

BLIND faith and charismatic leaders are deftly criticised in Haven. Set in monastic seventh-century Ireland, the story follows Artt, Cormac, and Trian as they leave their monastery on the Shannon to found a new settlement on Skellig Michael, a jagged rock seven miles off the coast of Kerry.

We meet the trio for the first time in the Cluain Mhic Nois refectory, and Donohue quickly establishes their characters, as Artt grandstands about not eating swan on a Friday, while Trian fills his brothers’ platters despite his own hunger. And Conor leads the musicians, pouring musical balm on the fasting conflict between the travelling scholar Artt and the Abbot.

Following the instructions of a dream, Artt selects elderly Cormac and 20-year-old Trian to forge a community, away from the temptations of humanity. From the moment the sewn-leather river craft departs, minus the two chosen monks’ essential provisions, the author creates a tension between the humble followers of Christ and their leader. With the laden boat is launched the reader’s suspense about what will strain their vow of obedience to breaking point.

Donoghue vividly recreates the sacramental elements of their mission, with the Office said in a roiling boat, and the Host made from blackened oatcakes when flour runs out. She also underlines the labour that produced the Celtic holy manuscripts surviving today. Copying scripture on to vellum resting on a slanted stone, Trian reflects: “But sometimes he can’t tell one word in the Psalter from the next. If only there were marks between the words, to keep them apart — dots, or spaces even — these would make copying so much easier.”

How Artt treats the island’s inhabitants — needlessly strangling a great auk (a bird now extinct) as a sacrifice to St Martin, burning puffins as fuel — mirrors his destructive relationship with his brethren. Donoghue’s synthesis of seventh-century technology, and the individual body as place of pain and mortification, but also of healing and strength, paints a picture of early religious life which is no idyll, but is illuminating.

Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.


Emma Donoghue
Picador £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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