How do you discern whether a vivid dream is a holy vision or just someone’s own desire? Haven, the latest novel from celebrated Irish Canadian writer Emma Donoghue (The Pull of the Stars, The Wonder), hinges on a monk’s ascetic dream of an island set apart for God’s glory.
Artt, a famed traveler and scholarly priest, selects timeworn and experienced monk Cormac and an awkward young monk named Trian to sail west and establish a new community for Christ. Their trinity seeks a place far from civilization and temptation, since Artt plans to withdraw from the world entirely.
Finding two remote islands after a week’s journey fills Artt with zeal and confirms God’s call upon him. But as Artt intones early in the novel, “Monkish life is one long war against the devil.” As he leads his two reluctant followers in an increasingly erratic and unyielding manner, questions abound: Will this haven be a true refuge? Did Artt hear God rightly? Or has he lost his way?
Inspired by the true history of an early Christian monastery founded on Ireland’s Skellig Islands, Haven explores the mix of superstition, lore, faith and basic need that accompanies humanity on a mission. As in her hit bestseller, Room, Donoghue’s powers of description expand small, confined spaces until they contain worlds of universal depth.
Haven sensitively considers hubris, humility and selfishness, who God is and how he might interact with his creation. Artt, Cormac and Trian grapple with this relationship as they face hourly trials in a new world that’s as solid and real as it is mysterious. Much of the action takes place in the hearts of these men, so the story’s pace is a slow, intriguing burn, building enjoyably until a somewhat jarring climax and disappointing denouement. Shock-value shift aside, Donoghue’s talent for storytelling captivates.
Thoughtful and thought-provoking, Haven captures the gulf that can grow—especially during times of hardship—between what we say we believe and how we live.