A familiar tyrant: Haven by Emma Donoghue

9781529091113

Emma Donoghue’s Haven doesn’t have the ingredients to be an obvious bestseller. Three monks set out to found a refuge from the world in seventh-century Ireland, eventually alighting on Skellig Michael, an isolated rock in the middle of the sea home to puffins, shearwaters, cormorants, auks and not much else. However, I love quiet, slow historical stories about faith and isolation, and I’ve never read a Donoghue novel I didn’t like (Hood, The Sealed Letter, The Wonder, Room) or love (Stir-Fry, Akin, The Pull of the Stars). So why wasn’t Haven a hit for me?

There are aspects of this novel I really liked. Donoghue painstakingly and lovingly explores the details of the monks’ difficult lives as they try to eke out an existence in this unpromising place. Through the oldest of the three, Cormac, we learn about masonry; the youngest of the three, Trian, struggles with the copying of manuscripts that is required of him by their leader, Artt, trying to find new ways to mix ink when he’d prefer to be out fishing and fowling. Having recently visited the Farne Islands, the sharp descriptions of the bird populations on Skellig Michael also rang true to me. While it helped that I could easily visualise this place due to its appearances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi as Luke Skywalker’s hideout, Donoghue brought it to greater life.

Where Haven fell down for me was in its thematic concerns and, to an extent, its characterisation. Cormac and Trian are both well-developed but Artt increasingly becomes a caricature of dogmatic faith. This linked to my lukewarm feelings about the novel’s concerns; it seemed to be saying very familiar things about fanaticism and human dominion over nature, rather than using its seventh-century setting to ask new questions. A late revelation feels unnecessary and under-explored, and should either have been integrated into the book from the beginning or omitted.

A final note: many reviewers have suggested this shares a lot with Donoghue’s earlier novel Room. Having very recently reread Room, I disagree. The books are both about people living in isolation from the world and making the best of the limited resources they have, but that’s where the similarities end. Room, I thought, was much richer and more interesting, posing questions about parenthood and childhood through the use of five-year-old Jack as a narrator. In contrast, Haven is disappointingly conventional, telling us things we already know.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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12 thoughts on “A familiar tyrant: Haven by Emma Donoghue

  1. Even though it sounds like I could safely skip this one, your post has reminded me that I really need to read more Emma Donoghue! I have only read Room, and that was years ago. I am particularly keen to read Stir-Fry and Akin.
    It is a pity about Haven, though – the premise seemed so promising.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Laura, this is one of the best reviews I’ve read. I agree – the inclusion of a (presumably) intersex person should have been properly developed, or else omitted, given the rotten cultural history of using trans and intersex bodies as shock factors and plot twists. Using a literal body reveal so late in the book as a narrative catalyst just hammers this into that brutal Crying Game lineage. Seeing an intersex/non-binary body treated as a spoiler-alert/plot twist in reviews just makes it worse. Really hard to fathom the decision – it would have added nothing substantial to the narrative even if the ‘non-binary freak’ cliché wasn’t so awful anyway. (And I had been really enjoying it up to that point, more so than you did, I think – I also found the setting convincing, but for me there was just enough Artt POV for him not to become a caricature.)

    Liked by 1 person

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