Haven by Emma Donoghue
In a small seventh-century monastery on the coast of Ireland, the monks are celebrating the first fast day after Easter. We are introduced to Trian, a 19-year-old monk who is ‘still growing, and always hungry’. Also at the meal is Artt, a travelling monk with ‘the bearing of a warrior king’ and the most exciting visitor Trian has ever beheld. Esteemed by all the other monks, Artt is ‘said to have read every book written, and has copied out dozens’. Moreover, he is not just a scholar priest; Artt has also spread the light of God, and is rumoured to have converted whole tribes across Europe.
In the middle of the night Artt wakes the abbot to tell him that he’s had a dream: a vision of an island in the sea where he sees himself with two others. One is Trian and the other Cormac, an older monk who played the lyre the previous evening. The three men set out on a pilgrimage to locate this island with the intention of establishing a monastic retreat. They assemble their small boat with supplies, but overload the vessel and must leave most of this essential cargo behind. The dangerous voyage eventually takes them to an island (known now as Skellig Michael). Artt’s only priority is to set up a church and holy place on this desolate rock. Trian and Cormac are more worried about the lack of food, water and other necessities, but are constantly told by Artt that it is God’s will for them to stay, that God will look after them.
Though the religious fervour depicted in Haven is rather mystifying to this agnostic reader, it is a subject Emma Donoghue – the author of the Booker-shortlisted novel Room – explores deeply. The protagonists’ daily lives are structured around prayer (once every three or four hours!), building the church and writing holy books – all for the glory of God. What results is an intense and disturbing novel of survival with an ending that seems unavoidable.