Image of Haven
Release Date: 
August 23, 2022
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

“A powerful story of community, faith, and belief, and which ones truly matter versus ones that are false distractions.”

On the face of it, Haven, Emma Donoghue’s new novel, has little in common with her bestselling Room. Set in seventh century Ireland, a quick recap would say the story is about the pressures faced by three monks as they set out to live in purity on a desolate island. But the deeper themes are eerily similar to those of Room: isolation, control, and living according to a world view shaped by someone else.

The three monks are adults, of course, though the youngest, Trian, seems to be a teenager. He and a much older monk, Cormac, are chosen to follow the vision of the “saintly” Artt to create a place of Christian devotion far from the distractions of earthly sins.

Donoghue has clearly done her homework and her medieval world is historically grounded, from techniques of farming, to wall-building, to manuscript production. There is not a single false note. Her characters feel equally real, starting with Artt, who is presented as a superior kind of monk:

“The sage is said to have read every book written, and has copied out dozens. Artt can work complex sums in his mind and chart the tracks of the stars. One of the band of solitaries who’ve been carrying the light of the Gospel from Ireland across a pagan-gripped continent, this soldier for Christ has converted whole tribes among the Picts, the Franks, even the Lombards.”

Arrt clearly sees himself as purer and therefore better than the monks his vision chose for him. As Trian notes, the Prior has “cut himself free of the ropes that keep lesser men bound to the world.” Trian counts himself and Cormac as just such “lesser men.”

In fact, however, as the three set out for days on the water to find the right place to make their “hidden haven,” it’s Trian who proves himself the best sailor. Once on land, he hunts for birds, eggs, driftwood—all the things they need for survival. Cormac has a different kind of knowledge: how to garden when there is barely any soil, how to preserve food, make candles, build walls. The small religious community relies on these “lesser” men for all the practical things they need. Artt scarcely acknowledges their expertise and work, instead berating them for any show of distraction from mediation on God’s grace.

And this is where Donoghue shows how one person’s view imposed on others can distort reality. Artt is full of the sin of vanity for his own holiness, but of course no lowly monk would dare to point that out. Nor does he see the holiness in others. He is too blinkered by his own certainty to be aware of anyone else’s opinion. When both Cormac and Trian timidly suggest working on shelter and food for their own health and preservation, Artt blithely replies that God will provide. His focus instead is on copying the precious manuscripts he brought, though it’s unclear who will ever read them.

Donoghue’s language is especially lovely when she describes Trian’s reactions to the beauty of the island, his awe at the glory of creation:

“How did a leaf get trapped in the rock? Such divine handiwork. The book of the earth has enigmatic passages that Trian can’t interpret, but he still loves to read it. It seems to him that nature is God’s holiest language.”

While Artt is blind to Trian’s gifts, Cormac sees them clearly, just as Trian appreciates Cormac’s many skills, amazed at how much he knows about so many different things. But neither monk can admit that Artt is more tyrant than Prior. Each of them accepts any punishment assigned by Artt, mortified that they have failed whenever he lashes out at them. Although Trian and Cormac maintain their sense of compassion and empathy, not only for each other, but for all the life on the island, they can’t admit the lack of these qualities in Artt. Or if they do, they consider it is only because Artt’s sight is set higher, on things that matter more.

The force of this propaganda, a sort of brainwashing, is no less insidious because it comes from a place of religious belief. Donoghue effectively shows the toxicity of blind acceptance, the need for critical thinking and faith in one’s own self. That’s the strength of the book. The many layers add up to a compelling argument against taking anything as “gospel truth.”

The only slight misstep is the ending, which hinges on a secret being revealed. The secret itself and its repercussions feel forced and ultimately unnecessary. A more natural ending would have ultimately been the same, but with a more convincing trigger, one coming from inside the monks, rather than outside. Still, the book remains a powerful story of community, faith, and belief, and which ones truly matter versus ones that are false distractions.