The pot is boiling over. The world has become rife with anxiety, corruption, and a desperate desire to flee. Those of faith attempt to find solace in religion, in a God who can help them start over. But is it genuinely possible – even sensible – to leave everything and start afresh away from mankind? “Haven” by Emma Donoghue tells the intense survival story of three monks who leave their monastery behind and set off to a distant, unpopulated island. Their mission is pure: to house Christ and practice their faith without the contaminating influence of sin. But what awaits them in their sanctuary is an awakening they didn’t expect.
The Irish author is known for her stunning grip on the human psyche, whether it is the mother-and-son bond in The Heartbreaking Room or the fasting girls in The Wonder. In this 250-page novel, Emma treads hitherto unexplored territory in every sense. The island exists in real-world Ireland and is now called Skellig Michael. Akin to its setting, the book is also harsh, rough to navigate, and sometimes dry to read – not a terrain all her readers would like to inhabit.
What Do The Monks Find On The Great Skellig?
Haven starts at the Cluain Mhic Nóis monastery, home to numerous monks headed by an abbot. When Artt, a renowned scholar and priest, visits, things get visibly shaken up. Artt rejects the classic fare of the fast day—roast swan—and also refuses eggs and dairy. Is he being insubordinate, or are Abbott’s rules faulty?
Waking from a vivid dream one night, Artt announces he must set off on a long, permanent pilgrimage to an island where no one lives. But he won’t go alone. Trian, a young and energetic fellow, and Cormac, an elderly storyteller, will accompany him on this journey. Things get loaded into the boat: charcoal, oats, herbs, and tools. Artt encourages them to remove several seemingly imperative items to make space and keep the load light—blankets, honey, an axe, etcetera. Musical Trian’s beloved pipe must also get abandoned.
Onwards goes the boat, leaving the safe and familiar monastery behind, towards the mouth of the river, the estuary, and finally, the sea. When the monks spot the conical, steep island, it is instantly evident to Artt that it is his dream in physical form. Never mind the lack of a proper cove for the boat or the scarcity of suitable soil to plant crops. The Lord will provide, they agree, and that is that.
How Do The Monks Survive On The Island?
A chunky portion of Haven details how the three religious men make ends meet on the Great Skellig. Cormac, experienced with farming and building, gets a head start on planting vegetables, arranging a water cistern, and cooking hot meals on a fire. Trian, skilled at hunting, brings them auks and fish for roasting. They never forget their prayers throughout the day and night.
The tasks of pivotal importance include erecting a cross, building a cathedral with stones, and copying religious books for future generations. Building a hut to deal with the winter chill is secondary.
But supplies are not everlasting. To Trian and Cormac’s surprise, trading with people on other islands is not an option. Their Prior reminds them they have turned their backs on the world forever. When communion bread runs out, they make do with oatcakes. When charcoal also trickles down to nothing, the monks start building fires with dead birds. Trigger warning: The book contains a ludicrous amount of bird slaughter—chicks straight out of their eggs, mates snug in their nests—and it isn’t palatable reading. You may also find it repetitive and dry if island-survival stories are not your thing, even with a gorgeous side of history.
Is Artt A Devoted Monk Or A Lunatic?
One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Haven is how it charts the fine line between utter dedication and lunacy. Artt makes several questionable decisions, but he always has a religious rationale you cannot contest.
When the wine runs out, the monks use water. While oats and wheat are at least both grains, Cormac wonders how wine and water can be interchangeable. Lobsters and mussels are dirty and disallowed, even when young Trian is ravenous, sleep-deprived, and weary to the bone. The once pristine island full of birdsong becomes a hotspot for fowl murder. Wouldn’t it have been better to acquire firewood from other communities, only a few hours away by boat?
Trian and Cormac, sworn brothers, do as their father asks without question. They suppress their doubts because shouldn’t a monk obey? Through soul-crushing hunger and illness that almost kills them, they persevere, copying scripts and waking up at night for prayers.
Things come to a head when, one day, Trian fashions a pipe with a bird’s wing. The faint strands of music bring some peace to his exhausted, starving body. But the frivolous pursuit must cease! How dare Trian disobey his father; hadn’t they left the pipe—and the penchant for music—back in the sinful world? Artt breaks the instrument in two and punishes his brother, condemning him to cross-vigil in the freezing river.
What Is Trian’s Secret?
It gets disclosed toward the end of the novel why Trian’s parents handed him to the monastery at such a young age and why he was frequently perceived as ‘rather odd.’ Cormac stumbled upon the secret one day while changing Trian’s clothes during his sickness: he was a hermaphrodite.
Artt’s reaction to this revelation is hardly surprising. He forgets everything that Trian accomplished on the Great Skellig—the relentless gathering, writing, and manual labor—because how does it matter when you are too filthy to be a monk? He relegates Trian to a solitary life on the island, stripping away his vows and ordering him to eat and sleep alone.
Cormac decides he has had enough. He finds Trian, and they get the boat out. Art glowers at the deserters as they row away from the formerly tranquil spot that has now become a maddening, intolerable prison.
What Happens To Artt After The Boat Leaves?
One of the most telling passages in Haven is the very last. Artt is undoubtedly furious about losing his brothers. But, at least, he now owns the island. He can guard it with holiness and infuse it with the very spirit of Christendom. He feels closer to heaven in the aftermath of his brothers’ desertion. While the book stops there, it is a fair guess what eventually happens to Artt. He has poor hunting and construction skills; the boat is now gone. Frost is at the door, in all its brutality. If it’s heaven Artt desired, it seems likely it is what he will receive.
Is Haven Based On A True Story?
The book draws inspiration from the tales of monks who retreated to remote places in the year 600—the Great Skellig was one of them. However, they were more worldly and engaged in trade with other communities for items like firewood and grains. In winter, they returned to the warmer mainland. Emma Donoghue takes creative liberties with the theme, exploring what happens when we stretch our principles to the breaking point. The island is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting scores of tourists—a scorching irony to what those first inhabitants intended.
Haven is a singular experience and raises almost unanswerable questions. Where does religion stop and mania begin? Are human beings so weak of the flesh that they are even capable of leaving things behind and living like baser animals? Is abandonment the only way to eradicate sin, and does absolute power in a master not corrupt absolutely? I found the novel dreary at times, and it is undoubtedly far removed from the author’s other works. But it offers an insightful peek into yesteryear. We must know where to draw the line unless we wish to be consumed by our beliefs.
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