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Haven by Emma Donoghue - Review

Saturday, August 5, 2023

When I was in Northern Ireland in May with my partner I bought two books in the Waterstones in Derry, and both happened to be by Irish authors, which I thought was pretty cool. I picked this up towards the end of July. I don't know exactly what I was expecting from the book, but it wasn't what happened. 

So the books starts in the south of Ireland in the early 7th century. Trian is a young monk at a monastery there. He was basically sold to the monastery as a thirteen year old. He is now nineteen and the famous monk Artt is visiting the monastery. Artt doesn't think the abbot is pious enough and is beginning to piss people off, when he has a vision one night that he is to sail to an island and set up a monastery there. He doesn't know which island, only that God will take him there. He is to take two monks with him - the young Trian, and Cormac, an old monk.

Cormac ended up at the monastery after his wife and children died of the plague, after which he was baptised as a Christian and joined the order. He is getting on in years but is very practical. Trian and he play in the music group together, but Artt insists that they leave their instruments behind. The three men pack a boat, filled with not much at all really, and set off down the Shannon river (the Sianon, as it is spelt in the book). 

Just eight miles from land they find two skelligs. The smaller one has no way to land on it, but the bigger one, a mile further away, is a bit more hospitable. That's extremely relative as both are just outcrops of rock. However, the men land and start a life there. 

Trian is very good at catching birds - who have no fear of the men - for them to eat. Cormac starts a garden in the tiny bit of soil available, and also a midden. He wants to build a shelter for the three of them because although it's spring now, the weather will turn and they'll need shelter. Artt won't let him, however. He is insisten that Cormac start building a chapel to honour God. 

Likewise, Trian is set to work copying out precious copies of the gospel under Artt's direction, even though he would rather be catching and preserving food for the winter. He is not a natural writer and hates the job, but obey's his Prior's commands. Island life is very like that at their monastery, with prayers, celebrating the Sabbath, and observing fast days, but with very little of the joy that made it bearable. Both monks assume that they will travel to trade with people nearby when they run out of things, but Artt forbids them. 

It is obvious that all three of them are going to end up in some kind of codependent madness, but I wasn't sure exactly what would happen. This is the third book I've read on a very isolated island like this and it never ends well! I felt like Artt was unyielding throughout the book and couldn't let either of the other men get their own way even when logic made their opinions seem right. I can utterly believe that someone like him would keep going in his bloodymindedness to get a chapel and monastery established on a rock in the middle of nowhere. 

Apparently the island is real and really did have a chapel and hermitage on it, but the three men are fictional and record has been lost about who really did build those things. But I really enjoyed the book and the look at 7th century Christianity in Ireland. I thought it felt quite modern in parts which I liked. I'm giving it five out of five. 

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