Home > Book Review, Genre, historic, Length - average but on the shorter side, LGBTQIA+ > Book Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

Book Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

Image of a digital book cover. A small pointy island is off in the distance in the sea.

Three monks struggle to survive on an inhospitable island off the Irish coast.

In seventh-century Ireland, a scholar and priest called Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind. Taking two monks—young Trian and old Cormac—he rows down the river Shannon in search of an isolated spot on which to found a monastery. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find an impossibly steep, bare island inhabited by tens of thousands of birds, and claim it for God. In such a place, what will survival mean?

This is a quiet character study set on a windswept island with only one tree upon it but thousands of birds. (This is based upon a real place in Ireland.) It wrestles with how being with nature at a more intimate level than what is currently experienced by one’s peers can bring out great revelations about a person. Both good and bad. It demonstrates how a group with a leader can show great resolve through trials but also the weakness of unquestioned loyalty to a questionable leader. How do you know when it’s time to question the leader?

What I found particularly interesting was how the story itself shows the strange juxtaposition of this group going to nature but their leader not respecting nature simultaneously. While Cormac and Trian both have a respect for and understanding of nature due to their lives before they were monks, Artt as a scholar does not. He does things and asks the other monks to do things that strike them as odd. Two things in particular feel like wrongdoing to the other two monks although they struggle to articulate why. I found myself wishing that Cormac and Trian could find either Buddhism or a Christian sect that had a greater respect for nature (for example: Franciscans). They would surely have fit in better.

An example of something Artt asks along this line that isn’t particularly a spoiler. Trian, after they arrive on the island, eats some shellfish and brings some back for the others to eat. Artt tells them this food is unclean and forbidden. Trian’s thoughts later:

He wishes he still didn’t know it was forbidden; wishes he was innocent and could cram his belly with whatever dirty, delicious stuff he found.

page 161

Trian loves the birds and watching them. Artt is annoyed by the birds. He views their noisemaking as exacerbated by the devil to work against them and tells Trian that it’s not possible to pray with your eyes open. Trian internally resists this. He feels it is possible to pray with one’s eyes open. The reader is left seeing how much more spiritually Trian engages with God’s creation than Artt does. In fairness to Artt he does have a greater faith than the other two in God’s providing for them. When the other two might be willing to give up and take the boat to get supplies, Artt encourages them to wait and see what they can figure out on the island itself. He’s often correct that they hadn’t quite considered all options yet. One might say that Artt has a lot of faith in God’s creativity and perhaps too much suspicion of Satan’s creativity as well.

There is some queer content. I can’t describe what it is without spoilers. Highlight the next paragraph to see.

Trian is intersex. This is a critical plot point. Cormac and Artt are divided on how to handle Trian after finding out. I was pleased with the resolution and feel the ending is, overall, uplifting.

Overall, this is a quiet study of what happens when one person is given too much authority over other people’s spiritual development. It’s set in a gorgeous, richly imagined backdrop. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I read it, which is why I rated it five stars.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codes. Thank you for your support!

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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