Emma Donoghue’s Haven Review: A 7th Century Room | Fiction

AAll nations are seduced by stories, and Ireland has long been susceptible to the warm tingle of mythology. However, some cherished beliefs are not only comforting, but at least partially true. For example, during the collapse of the Roman Empire, Irish scholars actually saved much of Europe’s literary heritage. Mind you, this had as much to do with his remoteness and darkness as it did with his zeal to learn.

Emma Donoghue’s latest novel takes a disenchanted view of these events. Set in the 7th century, she sheds the hazy hagiography that shrouds this period, eschewing saints and scholars in favor of struggling and imperfect humans. Although it retains some of the rawness and figurative grandeur of mythology, this is a story that has no illusions.

From the beginning, it is based on an early medieval Ireland that was much more plural and fluid than is often assumed. Artt, a learned priest recently returned from afar, arrives at the monastery of Cluain Mhic Nóise. Bringing with him new and uncompromising notions, he finds himself an honored if not entirely welcome guest, refusing the abbot’s wine and disparaging his lax observance of fast days. Donoghue deftly mimics these opening pages, giving us a strong sense of a society that is still weaving together its disparate fabrics, a people that doesn’t so much embrace the light of Christ as put it where it wouldn’t be in the way.

So it’s to everyone’s relief that Artt announces his departure. God has visited him with a dream, he explains, of a lonely island “far off in the western ocean.” But that is not all. Artt’s divinely inspired dream is also very specific. Taking two monks as his companions, he will travel to this storm-tossed rock, a place that is “untainted by the breath of the world,” and find in it a bastion of prayer.

In fulfillment of his vision, Artt settles on a pair of unlikely missionaries. Cormac is past his prime, a grizzled fighter who found Christ only after a plague carried his family and a rival clan onto his plot of land. Trian, meanwhile, is a mere young man, “gangly and strange” by his own sad admission. Neither is a true believer, but both are amazed enough to accept their new calling without murmuring. He also helps that they have little idea of ​​what that call will entail.

Artt’s Island turns out to be a place nothing could have prepared them for. Skellig Michael may be familiar to some from his appearances in later Star Wars films. An irregular mass of almost bare rock, it rises above the Atlantic about seven miles off the Kerry coast. Were it not the site of a royal monastic settlement from this period, it could reasonably be described as uninhabitable.

But when the pragmatic Cormac ventures this opinion, he is severely rebuked. “This place,” Artt declares, “was reserved for us when the Earth was made.” Accepting their fate, the monks climb ashore. His master may seem harsh and inscrutable, but for the moment, his authority is unquestioned. Though, by now, we’ve glimpsed enough of Artt’s nature to guess what awaits them.

Donoghue draws much narrative sustenance from its arid landscape. Though given little freedom, each of the brothers discovers inner resources that might otherwise have been overlooked. Trian, from a seafaring family, proves to be a skilled fisherman and, within his narrow limits, a keen explorer. Cormac tends a small garden on his lonely farmland. But soon Artt banishes even these small consolations. A stone altar must be erected, although they lack the slightest shelter; the deed must be copied, though its supplies are nearly exhausted. “Divided, we will fall,” he insists. He has been proven right, but not in the way he envisions.

Donoghue is an eclectic talent, and part of his fiction, like the unrestrained frog music – has covered wide and colorful canvases. However, in the drama that unfolds here, he returns to the radical minimalism of 2010. Room. Indeed, the two works share striking formal similarities: two characters struggle to preserve their humanity in total isolation while appeasing a ruthless captor.

Still, many writers rework familiar materials with powerful results. This is a miniature created with a muted palette, somber looking but packed with quietly beautiful detail. And its theme, of course, is universal: we are all stuck on this rock, trying to hold on to simple moral truths while silently losing our minds. As poor Trian says, in one of his darkest moments: “Even this unbearable life is still sweet.”

Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£9.99). Emma Donoghue’s Haven is published by Picador (£16.99). To support The Guardian and The Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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