Haven | Emma Donoghue #BookReview

Trian’s stomach growls. He’s not twenty yet, still growing, and always hungry.

When I first heard about Emma Donoghue’s book, Haven, I thought it would not be for me. Even though it was historical fiction, it was three monks alone on an island in Ireland. The religious life holds very little interest for me, so I was happy to leave well enough alone. But then I read Theresa’s review @Theresa Smith Writes. Towards the end she says of the book,

You got a sense of looking down a lens through history and seeing it all from the beginning, where we went wrong and why we are where we are today with so many lost species and a dying planet.

At this point, I realised I had stumbled across the book I was going to read on my holiday in the Port Douglas Daintree region.

The last time Mr Books and I went to Far North Queensland (FNQ) was in 2019, and I took Richard Powers book, The Overstory. It was a perfect fit. I couldn’t think of another tree story that I wanted to read during this visit, however a story about the environment and conservation and self-sufficiency would surely do the trick.

In the past I have enjoyed Donoghue’s stories whilst on holidays (in particular I read The Pull of the Stars during a week at the beach in 2020). Her writing flows smoothly, her plots are uncomplicated and she keeps her character count to a minimum, which makes it easy for me to pick up and put down as we go about the various things we do when we’re on holiday.

As it turned out, I devoured the book in just two days.

Reading Haven was like viewing the world in a microcosm of just three men on an island. A very small island.

Artt is the charismatic leader of this trio. A monk with grand visions and even grander designs. A man clearly drunk on his own power, a power that he claims comes direct from God, a power that he wields with unswerving, unquestioning belief, a man who believes his own bullshit.

The other two monks allowed him to assert his power over them. They believed that his education and visions gave him knowledge beyond their ken, he therefore had a right to be their leader. Although, as we soon see, both Trian and Cormac had knowledge and skills far more useful and practical than Artt’s visions and dreams.

Young Trian was the one who understood the the cycles of nature and the ways of animals, especially birds and fish. The main principles of conservation came naturally to him. He understood the need for diversity, to only take what you need and to use all of it.

Cormac understood the seasons of life and how to be self-sufficient. He knew how to replenish and renew, to harvest and lay down supplies for the winter, to regenerate and recycle. Both men knew in their heart of hearts that this was the right way to live on their new island , yet they gave into the authority of the one who demanded that things be done differently.

Skellig Michael (Image Source: Wikimedia | Jerzy Strzelecki – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Artt’s way believed that man was given dominion over the entire earth by God. A way that assumed man was the superior beast, that everything on earth was put there for mankind to use as he saw fit. When Trian questioned taking more than they needed, Artt corrected him by saying that all the birds, seals and fish on this island where ‘ready for our arrival. This whole island’s like one great banquet table that God’s spread for us.’

It makes you wonder what our world would now be like if religion had just stayed out of the whole picture. Or if more religions had been concerned with sharing and caring for country, nature and all living creatures.

Certainly the health of the Daintree Rainforest was never far from my mind as I read Haven.

We had fled rain-drenched Sydney desperate to find some warm sunshine after two years of pandemic and La Niña. But in FNQ, everyone we spoke to was concerned about how dry it was already and how unseasonably warm it was so early.

This was less a book about religion and monastic life and more about climate change, conservation and environmental issues. As I was reading Haven, Margaret Atwood’s essay in Burning Questions kept playing on my mind. In her 2010 PEN Congress, Tokyo speech she discussed what role or responsibility writers have in telling stories about our current environmental crisis. She believes, that in the end we are so embedded in the world we live in, that even if a writer sets out to write another kind of story, current events will make their way in regardless. We are all informed by the world in which we live, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps we may think we are telling a story about love, or war, or growing old – about our ancient, constant themes, human desires and human fears. But we will weave “the environment” into our stories whether we intend to or not because storytellers have always been attached to their world – both physical and social – and their stories have changed as the world has changed, and our own world is changing very quickly.

Margaret Atwood on literature and the environment

Whether Donoghue intended to write a book with an environmental message or not, I do not know. But that is how I read it. It’s certainly possible to see the effects of our various lockdowns and periods of isolation at play in her story as well. Although this story is set 1500 years ago, the topics felt very current and very pertinent. This is one storyteller clearly attached to her ever-changing world.

Facts:

  • The first monks on Michael Skellig are dated from c.790-830, but others may have been their earlier.
  • Around 600, small groups of Irish monks began retreating to remote places. This is when ED has set her fictional story.
  • Michael Skellig was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
  • In 2014-15 it was the film location for Luke Skywalker’s hideaway in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
  • It is now a tourist mecca.

Favourite Quote:

Trian wonders why men vie to amass possessions, when they can’t even hold onto their own skin for longer than God allots.

Favourite Character: Cormac for his gentle humilty and compassion.

Favourite or Forget: My favourite Emma Donoghue to date.

Room was dramatic and an emotional page-turner, Slammerkin was entertaining historical fiction, The Pull of the Stars was timely and Frog Music…well, the less said the better!

Title: Haven
Author: Emma Donoghue
ISBN: 9781529091144
Imprint: Picador
Published: 30 August 2022
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 272
Dates Read: 13 September 2022 - 15 September 2022
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

16 thoughts on “Haven | Emma Donoghue #BookReview

  1. As someone with only a patchwork knowledge of the history of the Celtic nations the notion of Skellig Michael as a refuge from the world has always fascinated and yet frightened me. I’ve yet to read any Donaghue, but I’d certainly consider this.

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    1. Certainly if you have a ‘thing’ for Skellig Michael, the Haven would make for interesting reading. I was reading a proof copy that did not include the image above. So I had no idea what the island looked like, but when I duck, duck, go’d it at the end, it looked just as I imagined it from ED’s descriptions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You really managed to get me interested in this book. Maybe not, I would usually read, but I love historical fiction. I am also trying to read as much as I can from the beginning of the Viking age, although this is a little bit earlier.

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  3. Have I said I’m not a fan of historical fiction? Although this doesn’t really seem to be an attempt to rewrite/re-interpret history, which is what I dislike. But the other thing I dislike is that in any remote situation writers insist that their characters choose a leader. Why do writers believe people need to be led? Co-operation works too, guys. And going your own way.

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