Wednesday 26 April 2023


Finished April 18
Haven by Emma Donoghue

This is a story set long ago, around the year 600 AD. It takes place on the coast of Ireland, on a very small island. This was a time when monks were setting small settlements in remote places and this story is one of such a settlement. The story begins at the monastery of Cluain Mhic Nois (now known as Clonmacnoise) near the Riven Shannon in central Ireland. It is spring, just after Easter, and there are a number of visitors to the monastery, among them Artt, a scholar, priest, and hermit.Artt is very much an ascetic, extending the rules of fasting beyond what is the norm for his times and pushing himself away from any indulgence. He believes monks should spend their time fasting, praying, and working, and be celibate. 
A young monk Trian, still a teenager was the one to ferry him over from across the river and receive him by washing his feet. Trian is musical, handy on a pipe. Trian is also one quick to notice need and rush to meet it. He came to the monastery at the age of thirteen, given up by his family who had trouble supporting all in their family. 
Cormac is an man who came late to monkhood, after surviving a plague that killed his wife and children and then later a dispute with another clan. He was injured a brought to the monks for healing. He was a farmer, and builder, and is handy with a lyre, often called to entertain when that is needed. 
Late in the night after the feast Artt wakes the Abbot to tell him his dream, that he has been called to lead a small group (just himself and two other monks, one young and one old) to a small island to found a monastic retreat. The monks he saw in his dream are Cormac and Trian, and they both agree to go with him. 
They take little with them, keeping their boat as light as possible, the minimum of food and tools. They take a holy chest with the necessities for mass and for copying holy texts. Artt has culled the rest of their supplies, leaving behind the spare sail, whetstones, scrapers, and most of the iron tools, fishing spear, axe, most extra clothing, blankets, musical instruments, and many of the nicer bits of food like honey. 
The small group travel downriver and to the ocean and end up on a small island now known as Skellig Michael. The island is mostly rock, with many nests of puffins, auks, and other seabirds. As they settle in and find ways to gather the necessities, such as water and start a garden, they find much to challenge them. 
This is a book that looks at the hardship these men agree to for their faith, sees where they waver, and where decisions are made that will have impact later. This is a book that moves slowly, yet irrevocably forward. We share the monks' hope and despair, and find more than we imagined we would. 
Beautifully written, with scenes that will haunt you later. An excellent read. 

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