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If you’ve watched the most recent Star Wars movies, you might be familiar with the Irish island of Skellig Michael, which served as the shooting location for the remote, craggy rock where Luke Skywalker lived out his final years. In Emma Donoghue’s new novel, HAVEN, which is set there, it’s also a long time ago --- in this case, the early seventh century --- but right here on earth. As Donoghue notes in an afterword, Skellig Michael was in fact the site of an early monastic settlement. However, the ruins left behind by those monks date back so long ago that the site is really a novelist’s dream, with the opportunity to imagine a high-stakes drama playing out in a real-world location.

"HAVEN is ostensibly a novel about a religious community, but as the plot unfolds, a more humanistic and less deistic worldview emerges."

The novel begins in an established Irish monastery, which recently has been blessed by a visit from a famous stranger. Artt is a noted priest and scholar who has traveled around the world, learned many languages, and --- so it is rumored --- read every book then in existence. While at the hermitage, he has a particularly vivid dream that he is convinced is a message from God, calling him to found a new monastery away from the mainland and its worldly preoccupations. What’s more, his dream seems to call him to bring two specific monks with him on this mission: a young scribe named Trian and an older man named Cormac, who came to Christianity late in life after losing his entire family to the plague.

At first, the two monks are honored to be chosen, if a little confused about why they were Artt’s first choice. But they start to get hints about the road ahead as they load provisions into their small boat. Both men are musicians, but Artt refuses to allow them to pack their instruments, not even Trian’s small flute. As the three sail off the coast, it’s obvious that Artt has no clear sense of their destination. He just tells the others to trust that the Lord will provide the directions, and his advice soon becomes a chorus over the months to come.

When they finally encounter Skellig Michael, they find a rocky island with virtually no arable land, a single tree and no running water; the only source of drinking water is a small catchment for rainwater. What it does have is a lot of birds, especially great auks, shearwaters and puffins, though the monks view these animals more as a nuisance than as a blessing. While Cormac and Trian become increasingly concerned about their survival and establishing stores and systems that might enable them to survive the coming winter, it’s clear that Artt’s only concern is with spiritual matters, at least inasmuch as they are reflected in fashioning a stone cross, building a chapel and (in Trian’s case) endlessly copying a Psalter. But what seems at first to be an admirable repudiation of human needs and frailty soon takes on a darker tone.

As I approached the end of HAVEN, I texted my mom, a big fan of puffins, to warn her that she might want to prepare herself beforehand if she plans to read this book. There are some pretty upsetting scenes involving puffins and other animals that will prompt readers to reflect on the repercussions of man’s supposed dominion over the animals and how that is connected to our current environmental crises. That’s just one of the issues that Donoghue touches on in this remarkable novel, which feels at times like a fable and at others like an adventure novel. She aptly portrays Artt as distant and unknowable, and depicts Cormac and Trian as perhaps the true sages on Skellig Michael, skilled in craftsmanship, music, invention and scientific intuition, as well as empathy and kindness.

HAVEN is ostensibly a novel about a religious community, but as the plot unfolds, a more humanistic and less deistic worldview emerges. Artt may be a world-renowned scholar, but his motives are far from pure. Any wisdom and compassion he possesses is dwarfed by the two people he has chosen, for better or for worse, as his disciples.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 26, 2022

by Emma Donoghue