HAVEN. By Emma Donoghue. Picador

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HAVEN. By Emma Donoghue. Picador

In June 2012, encouraged and accompanied by our daughter, we embarked on the scariest boat trip I’ve ever undertaken.

The morning was stormy when we set off from Portmagee in west Kerry on our way to Skellig Michael seven miles out in the ocean and, given the sea’s turbulence, most of the adjacent boats at the quayside had declined our request to make the journey.

But my daughter, who’s an ornitholgist, was already a veteran of such excursions and indeed had previously spent some days on Skellig Michael. None of that. however, alleviated my unease and my eventual sense of panic as the motor boat thrashed through the waves. I thought the ordeal would never end.

And it didn’t help that, when we finally made it to the gaunt crag – designated a World Heritage site in 1996 and destined for fame as a location for the Star Wars franchise – a wildlife officer told me how, on two separate occasions a couple of years earlier, two American tourists had plunged to their deaths while climbing the steep, unrailed pathway up the precipitous cliff-face. Needless to say, I didn’t attempt the same hair-raising ascent.

And I was left wondering how on earth, more than a millenium and a half ago, a group of monks had managed to survive not just this arduous journey but life on this bleakest of outcrops.

That’s the story at the heart of Emma Donoghue’s new novel, which posits the notion that a mere three monks set off from Clonmacnoise to fulfil a vision that had come to their leader in a dream.

His name in the book is Artt and he has “the bearing of a warrior king”. He has also “converted whole tribes” to Christianity during his extensive travels abroad. But he’s just had a vision instructing him to withdraw from the world and to found a monastic retreat remote from humankind and its corrupting influence – not least the influence of women, it being Artt’s view that “woman is a botched man, created only for childbearing”. And that’s only the beginning of Artt’s dogmatic pronouncements, as the reader will soon learn.

Anyway, he recruits elderly and somewhat misshapen Cormac, who had once been married but who had found his true monastic vocation late in life; and Trian, a gormless young man who in childhood had been left at Clonmacnoise by parents who didn’t know what to do with him. But Trian is resourceful and it’s he, helped by Cormac, who assembles a seafaring craft for their voyage into the unknown.

And so they set off, with Cormac and Trian being constantly harangued by Artt’s sanctimonious zealotry. “When is man ever free from contagion?” Artt informs them as they’re hurtling across the open sea. “God visits ills upon whioever he chooses”. “The farther from men, the closer to God”, he assures them, while they meekly refrain from questioning him on anything. And when they finally catch sight of Skellig Michael, Artt grandiously deems it “the most gigantic of cathedrals, ready for its priest”.

And when landed on the island, the incessant hectoring doesn’t let up. As Cormac and Trian forage for food (fish, puffins, whatever) and seek to build shelter from the elements, Artt rails against the evils of the outside world. Cities, he thunders, are especially heinous, being places where “sin spreads as fast as infections”.

And he brooks no dissent from his cravenly submissive two disciples. “Are you contradicting me?” he demands of Cormac, the latter stammering in response “Not at all, Father. I only meant – there’s so much you know that I don’t, for all my years”.

The problem with this novel is that the characters never develop any complexity or indeed into people we can actually care about. This is especially true of Artt, who, despite the hardships and viccisitudes of the life they’ve all been leading, remains the same inflexible, intolerant and fanatical zealot at the end as he was at the start.

Towards the close, and too late for it to be of any significance or even much interest, it’s revealed that Trian is marked by an androgynous body, but that revelation goes nowhere beyond incurring Artt’s disgust at Trian, whom he dismisses as a “freak”.

Finally, just before the book’s close, Cormac and Trian revolt, coming to a momentous decision that will alter their lives and determine their future. This reader, for one, regrets they hadn’t reached it much earlier.

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