The universal appeal of a sanctuary away from the excesses of society is at the centre of this novel. It is a sanctuary itself that the three characters want to escape – a 600AD Irish monastery. Artt, a senior monk, has a dream where he and two followers find a remote island where they can live alone, far from the excesses of the monastery with its fine foods, secreted women and lack of proper adherence to strict Christian rituals and rules. 

Believing in the dream, the three set off in a small boat, find an isolated rocky island and begin their ‘go bush’ life alone. They are finally away from the foibles and lusts of their former world – yet Artt enforces strict rules of that very world. He insists that all the daily prayers, rituals and  communions are conducted, even as the three suffer from hunger and cold. He rings a tiny bell for prayers throughout the day and if either of the other two are late, there is harsh punishment. Artt’s demands become increasingl bizarre, yet the others are reluctant to disobey – surely a senior monk knows better than they ever could. As winter approaches and they grow hungrier, Artt tells his two followers that God will provide for them. And God (the sea’s bounty) does… for a few months. 

How does Emma Donoghue’s HAVEN compare with other novels of the same genre? Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife of an evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Finally the wife abandons the preacher when he loses his humanity by his extreme religious beliefs. Oh, it would be so easy to draw parallels with our previous Pentecostal PM, but let’s not go there! The good-preacher-turns-dangerous-zealot is the stuff of many fantasy stories and futuristic novels. Most, like Kingsolver’s, have enough clues early on about how the story will end – the zealot will finally be recognised for his loss of humanity and be abandoned.

And so it is with HAVEN. As their supplies run low and the weather worsens, will the followers obey Artt’s increasing absurd commands? Will Artt go mad? Will the two followers see his faults and disobey? Will they survive the winter? Will the Haven become a Hell?  

That such stories are predictable doesn’t matter. The writing in Haven is tense. Set in 600 AD off the coast of Ireland, the tale is beautifully told. The details of survival realistic. The descriptions of their inventiveness are interesting – how to make soap, how to make bricks from stone, how to use bird fat as fuel and all the other survival techniques the three develop. The characters are neatly developed, all packed with psychological complexities – why did the two follow Artt to the island? Why do they obey him? How to they rely on one another? Is there something in the characters that each reader can relate to? Most likely.

The rocky outcrop they live on could represent different places to different readers. ‘The go-bush’ syndrome? Perhaps the hordes of ‘preppers’ living remotely fearing the collapse of society from climate change? Perhaps the setting of the Tolkien series? Perhaps just our own quiet dreams of someplace away from the real world’s absurdities?

There is one flaw in the story. It comes near the end, a revelation about one of Artt’s followers that would be a spoiler to reveal. This flaw seriously detracts from the novel. What a shame. It is so unnecessary to introduce the issue. Haven is otherwise an engaging, realistic, well-researched novel. 

There is archaeological evidence that monks did live on a rocky island off the County Kerry coast around 600AD. You can find it on Google Maps. Called a Skellig, this rocky outpost was the location for scenes in Star Wars and The Last Jedi, and is now a tourist destination.

Writer Emma Donoghue was raised in Ireland and now lives in Canada. She is a finalist for the Man Booker, Orange Prize and Commonwealth Prizes.

Emma Donoghue HAVEN

Published by Picador, August 30, 2022


ISBN: 978 1 5290 9114 4

Featured pic : Author Emma Donoghue

Review by Carol Dance