Haven: A Novel
(Little, Brown and Company, August 2022)
Emma Donoghue’s new novel explores themes of faith, obedience, isolation, and survival in a harrowing story that is ancient and alien but also holds truths for our own time. While at first I felt alienated by the historical setting and suffocating version of early Christianity followed by the novel’s three characters, there are compelling deeper themes at play. Opening with the arrival of Artt, famed scholar hermit and priest, at the bustling monastery of Cluain Mhic Nóis (Clonmacnoise) on the first fast-day after Easter, the story emerges from the point of view of three men: Artt and two monks: young and naïve Trian and the older and experienced Cormac.
Trian describes Artt as “brawny as some hero who can toss with one hand a boulder twice the size of his head” and unblemished by life except for “the blackened stump of the little finger of his massive right hand” a sign that Artt survived the plague. Trian is impressed and confused by Artt’s unwillingness to eat more than bread and water at the Abbott’s feast. Later that night, Artt has what he believes is a prophetic dream—a message from his God. He tells the Abbott that Trian and Cormac appeared in his dream as his companions on a journey to an “island in the sea” where they will “withdraw from the world” and “found a monastic retreat” believing that rather than living in the relative luxury of the monastic life of Cluain Mhic Nóis, “those who hate the world most have to go even farther to escape its seductions, right out to sea.”
Cormac, we learn, came to the monastery by chance after losing his entire family to the plague. He was injured and a monk saved him; he was then baptized, taught to read, and took vows. Trian was sent to the monastery at thirteen by his parents “for safety” and sees Artt’s call as a chance to escape the mundane life of the monastery: “an adventure, like a heroic deed out of song.” Four days later, the three men load a tiny boat—Artt removing anything he deems excess—including Trian’s pipe and Cormac’s lyre. The two monks swear obedience to Artt and they row off down the river. As they travel, Artt (now their Prior), leads the men in prayer, impressing them with his seeming holiness. Cormac and Trian provide vivid descriptions of the natural setting of their journey downriver: “Downy birch and willow are woven thick on both banks in the first haze of Eastertide green. Tall alders dangle reddish catkins against glossy ovals that have only just opened.” As the journey and story move forward, I found these moments of description of the natural world to be a relief from the heavy religiosity of the Prior who calls himself “an exile for God,” who loves “nothing here below.” While Trian reads these proclamations as evidence of exceptional piety, to me they read as arrogant and utterly alienating. Whether Donoghue means the reader to or not, from the outset I was already taking sides against the Prior. In Trian’s sections, there are questions he asks silently as he strives to figure out his new master. When the Prior tells Cormac that adjusting to seasickness is a “matter of humility” which will lessen suffering, Trian sees a dichotomy: “suffering is good,” as it connects the monk to the suffering of Christ on the cross, but “so is humility.” Trian wonders if “humility happens to lessen your suffering, is that allowed?” As the narrative builds, Trian’s questions begin to add up, providing foundation for an explosive ending.
The journey, like those that appear in Old Irish and Irish-Christian tales (the iomramh), focuses on travel from the River Shannon into the uncharted islands in the ocean off the West Coast of Ireland. These tales were linked to the practice of Irish monks, as early as the fifth century, going on pilgrimage seeking isolation from the world. Donoghue does a brilliant job of showing the dangers of such a journey: unprotected, without map or sextant or weapon. Even the Prior fears for their safety at one point, but when they survive a brief attack, tells his monks, “Fear nothing. We travel under God’s protection.” It’s hard not to roll your eyes when the Prior makes comments like this, and conflict builds between the characters from the outset. Cormac tells wonderful traditional tales—Trian providing an eager audience and the Prior often responding with scorn and his version of piety. In telling his own story of the “perverse daughter of Eve, Sionan” (the River Shannon is named after her), the Prior states, “woman is a botched man, created only for childbearing” and Cormac wonders if his own dear departed wife would agree. The Prior’s arrogance is already creating a rift, and when Cormac considers the Prior’s use of the term “fellowship” he wonders, “Is there a word for a fellowship of unequals?” When the Prior suggests that “God moves the very waters for us,” Cormac asks himself, “Doesn’t the tide turn twice a day, heedless of who floats on it?” Despite the Prior’s posturing at leadership, once they’re at sea, it’s clear to Cormac that Trian has more seafaring skills and when the Prior finally reveals that he doesn’t know where he’s going but instead urges the monks to trust in God, it’s hard not to share Cormac’s skepticism.
Trian views the natural world with a mix of interest and joy, marveling at the variety and number of birds both at sea and once they’re on the island. The Prior refers to a cormorant as being like “some demon carved on a pillar” and Trian responds that the bird is likely “just drying its feathers.” And it seems like rank stupidity when the Prior insists that they keep to a schedule of prayers—standing in their tiny boat in the middle of rising ocean waves. Later, they are forced to sit in a becalmed ocean, unable to row on the Sabbath. When Cormac tells the tale of Saint Brendan (Brendan the Navigator), who traveled the seas from island to island, the monks begin to ask the Prior about the island in his dream, and Cormac realizes it sounds “less and less like an actual island.” But just after the Prior preforms mass, the fog clears and two islands appear. The Prior, of course, sees this as a sign from God. When they sail closer, and the size of the Great Skellig is revealed, the Prior claims it as “his” island: “The higher up, the closer to heaven.”
The Great Skellig or Skellig Michael is a dramatic twin-pinnacled piece of rock rising over seven hundred feet out of the ocean some eight miles off the coast of Ireland. It’s a stunningly beautiful place and formidably uninhabitable. Home to the ruins of an Irish monastery founded between the sixth and eighth centuries, it’s a powerful place to set a story of survival. Skellig Michael should be familiar to fans of Star Wars—it’s the setting of Luke Skywalker’s refuge. For the early Christians who lived there, Skellig Michael was a place to practice an extreme form of Christian monasticism (as demonstrated by Donoghue’s Prior Artt) and as a place to preserve sacred texts in a world rife with Viking and Irish raiders. But it’s also a place with no groundwater (as Cormac soon discovers), thin topsoil unsuitable for crops, and home to thousands of birds.
The Prior’s inability to serve as a reasonable leader will ultimately lead to destruction, and his need for absolute obedience continually causes conflict. He scolds Trian for diving into the water to save the boat when they’re attempting to land, although without Trian’s quick help, they would have lost everything. A combination of Trian’s knowledge of fishing and hunting, his youth and agility, and Cormac’s knowledge of building and gardening allow them to eat and begin work on a cistern to hold water. The Prior refuses to allow Cormac to build shelter first and through his arrogance and lack of skill, ruins the giant stone cross Cormac erects. Trian rebels at the constant murder of birds on the island, suggesting they “were here long before us” and is deeply troubled that the birds put up no defense. But the Prior quotes Christian scripture claiming that “This whole island’s like one great banquet table that God’s spread before us.”
When he breaks an arm of the massive stone cross Cormac has skillfully built, the Prior goes into paroxysms of guilt and rage against himself and then sets himself a painful penance, illustrating his version of Christianity where “Pain’s a privilege, a gift, a grace … God teaches by tears, and he wounds only to heal.” While the Prior sees his self-inflicted suffering as holy, it’s rife with arrogance and a symptom of a belief that shifts blame and responsibility. If the Prior wasn’t so arrogant, he would trust his companions to know what they’re doing. Later, when he again proclaims that sacred duties are more important that “bodily” work (the important work of survival), his continued failure to face reality puts unbearable strain on the other monks. Trian is forced to copy manuscripts during the day and well after dark rather than hunting and fishing for their food. Cormac’s suggestion that they need to travel to the mainland for basic provisions, the Prior insists that “God will provide.” When Trian brings fresh shellfish—that live in abundance on the shore—the Prior insists they can’t be eaten because of a passage in Leviticus. Continually showing his own ignorance of basic survival, the Prior preaches to his men, demanding their obedience even when it should be clear that they know what is needed while he does not.
Throughout the novel Donoghue provides detailed descriptions of the natural world and the world of work: how vellum and quills are made, how an altar, a cross, a hut is built, how Cormac makes compost and grows a tiny garden, how Trian baits his line and fishes, how birds are caught and cleaned and cooked. It’s clear that Donoghue did her research and these passages will be of great interest to those who love this type of historical detail. Reading about the birds and dolphins in huge crowds, the great Auks (long extinct), and the contrast between Tristan’s regret and the Prior’s arrogance, I saw a distinct symbol of our broader arrogance in the destruction of our natural environment. And the gentle friendship that develops between Cormac and Trian is in stark contrast to the Prior’s thoughts that “any company would be grating by now. That’s the nature of congregation … like the grit in a millstone that gradually smoothens down the soul.” As someone whose own religious practice is founded on congregation and not removal from society or salvation through suffering, it’s hard for me to have any sympathy for the Prior or his beliefs. When Cormac silently questions the Prior again and again at the refusal to support efforts to help them survive, I agree with him, the man’s a lunatic and “This is nonsense.”
Trian creates a bone pipe to replace the one the Prior made him leave behind but the Prior sees this as “rank disobedience” and destroys it. Bereft by the loss of his pipe, Trian is further horrified when the Prior demands they begin burning birds as fuel rather than going to the mainland for coal or wood. In rebellion, Trian eats shellfish, and when the Prior chops down the only tree—an ancient rowan—Trian can’t forgive him. Trian gets sick and while Cormac cares for him, discovers a secret. Cormac also realizes that the Prior’s deadly dedication to isolation will likely be the death of all three of them. And when the Prior severely punishes Trian for a mistake in a form of penance that will likely kill, Cormac decides, “It’s a kind of madness … The man has to be stopped.” Cormac mistakenly reveals Trian’s secret to the Prior and the Prior makes a rage-fueled choice that will lead Cormac to make his own irrevocable decision echoing the quote from Augustine’s City of God that appears at the beginning of the novel, “What, then, consoles us in this human society full of calamities but the unfeigned faith and mutual love of true and good friends?” This is a powerful read with careful attention paid to balancing natural and historical detail with a broader exploration of faith, madness, survival, and what it means to be human.