What, then, consoles us in this human society full of calamities, but the unfeigned faith and mutual love of true and good friends?—Augustine, City of God, AD 426.
Emma Donoghue’s (ROOM) latest novel is set in seventh-century Ireland in Cluain Mhic Nóis, a monastery in County Offaly on the River Shannon. A scholar and priest named Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind and found an isolated monastery. With two monks, young Trian and elderly Cormac, he sets out on a pilgrimage in a small boat with only faith to guide them. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find a steep, craggy island now known as Skellig Michael and claim it for God.
Artt tasks Cormac with building a great cross and Trian with copying the Bible. Other than the thousands of birds that inhabit the rock, though, it has little to offer in the way of resources—no groundwater and little vegetation. Artt forbids the others from trading with nearby settlements, so as summer turns into fall, their supplies dwindle. In the end, the two followers fear they have sworn fealty to a lunatic.
With Haven, Donoghue has penned an atmospheric, character-driven novel about the dangers of legalism and the curses of power. Her research was impeccable, from the religious life of a monk to survival on a piece of rock in the middle of the ocean. I could imagine living with absolutely no creature comforts and the emotions that brought.
The arduous process of codex especially fascinated me making. Fashioning vellum from animal skins, rubbing it with pumice to reduce to the sheen, making bronze needles, quills, and ink has given me a new appreciation for early Bibles I have seen on display in museums.
This psychological, contemplative novel was beautifully written, but with little action, it was dull. It was also quite sad. 3.5 stars.
Incidentally, Sceilg Mhichíl is an official UNESCO Heritage Site and ruins of the monastery still stand. You can read more about it HERE.