Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

Many readers of Donoghue’s other works will probably be disappointed by this one. She’s a beautiful writer and a powerful storyteller, and I appreciate how different her books are. This one isn’t my favorite of hers, but it was a thought-provoking read.

Haven tells the story of an island off of Ireland called Skellig Michael, and the earliest monks that might have settled it. This is the island that was filmed in the recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. There is no specific time attached to this story, as the history of the island is somewhat unknown.

Artt is a celebrated monk who visits a monastery in Ireland and has a dream that he is to set out with two other monks to live their days in the glory of God, far from the land of men. In his dream, he sees his two companions: Cormac, an older but recent initiate who lost all of his family to the plague; and Trian, a young man who was given by his family to the monastery.

The men will have to rely on each other and God, and little else, to survive in a harsh remote wilderness. Those who appreciate a good nature survival story will like this book. It moves slowly, but it’s the characters’ absolute solitude and reliance on nature and faith that made this story compelling. Donoghue writes about their daily lives in great detail, from fishing to stonework to gardening, even the creation of pens and ink for the transcription of a religious document.

I said recently in writing about Brideshead Revisited that I’m not the best person to review a book that’s fundamentally about religion, particularly Christianity. The religion practiced in this book felt more cruel than inspirational, but I think that was intended. I don’t have to know a lot about religion to understand that it’s only as benevolent as the individuals who practice it.

Donoghue slowly explores the characters of each of the three men, as tensions build in their community of three. In a way, this is a book that’s more about leadership than about religion. As their leader, Artt has many opportunities to comfort, to teach, and to strengthen the two men who are sworn to him. But he’s sadly, very human.

I loved the nature aspects of the book, and I appreciated the psychological aspects of three people living on their own in an isolated place. Donoghue excels at introspective writing, and I found that even at its slowest, I was never bored.

As I said in the beginning of this review, I appreciated this thoughtful book, while also finding it frustrating at times, and there’s a plot development at the end I have mixed feelings about. So it won’t be one of my favorites of Donoghue, but then I’ve loved so many of her books (The Wonder, Room, Astray, The Pull of the Stars) so she’s set a very high bar for me. This book also reminded me a bit of Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built, but set long ago rather than the future.

This book meets several challenges: 20 Books of Summer, the Gaia Nature Reading Challenge, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Note: I received an advanced review copy from NetGalley and publisher Little, Brown & Co. This book publishes on August 23, 2022.

  9 comments for “Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

  1. lydiaschoch
    August 23, 2022 at 9:58 am

    I didn’t know Emma Donoghue had a new book out. What a well-rounded review.

  2. August 23, 2022 at 5:34 pm

    Nice review. I liked her writing but the story was so at odds with history.

  3. August 24, 2022 at 6:20 am

    Oh… religions are only as benevolent as the individuals who practice them – too true!

  4. August 31, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    Slow, methodical. I love her other books, but this one felt tedious. I never really cared about any of the 3 monks. Skipped through the final stages, just wanted to stop reading.

  5. Sharon
    December 26, 2022 at 7:56 pm

    Adding this one to my list. I have heard people find this one a bit slow after her previous books but I must confess that slower, introspective pace appeals to me. Great review.

  6. January 2, 2023 at 12:44 pm

    I definitely was left with the impression that this was meant as a critique of how the faith was being practiced, but of course only the author knows her true intensions!

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