Emma Donoghue

(Picador, 2022)

Marooned on a small island with little or no company, a castaway is very likely to go mad: a possibility that hardly affects Robinson Crusoe, even though he has some low moments, but one that seems more plausible to authors of more recent castaway novels. Some deal with delusion (Golding, Pincher Martin, Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel), some with extreme violence (Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory, Golding, Lord of the Flies), with superstition (Lord of the Flies, Cristina Fernandez Cubas, The Year of Grace).  Extreme and destructive drives affect Artt, the leader of the monks who maroon themselves on a wild barren rock in Emma Donoghue’s Haven.  His obedient followers are Trian and Cormac, and these two suffer at Artt’s hands and yet, for a long time, uphold the Crusoe tradition of practical work to ensure survival. Haven manages to keep these two discordant strands of the castaway narrative going for most of the novel, but the upshot is confusion and defeat.  

Artt is the leader, the Prior, and it is Artt who ensures that settlement and stability are never achieved, conditions degenerate, and his project ends in fiasco. The time is around 600 AD, that of the flourishing of Irish monasticism, and the place is Skellig Michael, to the west of Ireland, an outcrop from the sea, steep and gaunt, very rich in seabirds but otherwise rock, scant of vegetation. Recent castaway novels often move their island from the fertile tropics to the grim Atlantic, as with the island off Scotland in The Year of Grace and the rock in the Atlantic in Pincher Martin, or that which the inhabitants have almost all left in Michael Crummey’s ironically named Sweetland (Sweetland is also the family name of the lone holdout, who eventually succumbs to delusion) off the coast of Newfoundland.

That several of these islands are close to the mainland suggests that castaways have not left existing society but moved to a place where its power struggles are yet more evident, and that all are barren suggests that the scene will be one of struggle.  Artt is a man of power.  His role as he sees it and acts it is to give orders. He intends to establish a community conforming totally to essential – as he sees it – ascetic Christianity. Quite soon all his orders are negations and prohibitions, and he ends as one who does nothing much but give orders. The seeming exception to this null pattern is the way he drives Trian to copy a text of the Psalms. Trian, however, is left-handed and not a skilful copyist (I sympathise on both counts). This drive of Artt’s becomes a mania; there is no chance that Trian’s copy will be read, or even made the source of another copy, which appears to be Artt’s idea of why a copy is made. Otherwise, for Artt, life on Earth is a mere prelude to death and the hereafter, and in making a monastery on a bare rock the three of them are to express this literally, by severing any contact with the mainland, doing without anything the Bible says should be renounced (shellfish, for instance), and expecting God will provide because or in spite of actions that impede or renounce the effort to provide for oneself. 

Trian and Cormac have sworn obedience to their Prior, and this obedience lasts, in the face of common sense and the instinct for survival (not to mention the desire for comfort and pleasure) almost to the end.  Their obedience, which is implicit and heartfelt, not merely formal, is one sign that they are not like us and belong to another epoch.  The fervour of their obedience is enough to secure Artt’s power over them, and in fact to lead him on to yet more crazy demands and prohibitions as he tests, asserts, and underlines that he is to command, and they are to obey.  It is also almost the sole sign of their being monks. It is as if whatever other piety they had as monks (perhaps not much, given that both had entered the monastery in less than ardently devout ways) is stripped away by Artt’s insistence on obedience and their response to his insistence.  Artt resembles the great paternal and patriarchal tyrants in modern fiction, such as Sam Pollitt in Christina Stead’s The Man who loved Children or Bill Potter in A S Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden.  He absorbs all attention and devotion to himself, yet can never be satisfied by it – and he lacks the superficial charm and liveliness of these comparable patriarchs.

Trian and Cormac, the one young and vigorous, the other old, uneducated and humble, set themselves to survive and settle on Skellig. They cannot at first imagine doing anything else. They don’t question Artt’s power as their Prior or examine where he might intend to take them.  They assume that their roles are practical and they set about them. Haven thus presents a castaway with a drive towards death alongside a pair of castaways who obey this leader implicitly but also set themselves to survive. Cormac makes a garden and a midden, looking to future seasons, and he persuades Artt that they should construct a shelter, using his skill as a stonemason.  Trian collects seabirds and their eggs to eat, and collects driftwood, and shellfish, and goes fishing. When he is forbidden to collect shellfish, he stops doing so; when they run out of driftwood he collects fledgling birds for their flammable oil, a repugnantly greasy and violent task. They are living in the midst of abundance in the form of thousands of seabirds with the unceasing din of their cries and their multitudes of offspring, but for all Trian’s agile hunting and collecting they start to starve.  Still, the Crusoe-like urge to work and think in practical ways and make sustenance from what can be found and – in Cormac’s garden- and hut-making – constructed is strong, as long as their obedience holds and they refrain from thinking where Artt is taking them through that obedience.  

For all the energy and improvisation of Trian and Cormac, the trajectory is always downwards, as Artt desires – through Cormac’s wounded leg and his illness and approaching blindness, through Trian’s misery as a copyist and Artt’s rages at his mistakes, through Artt’s insistence on first shaping a stone cross (Cormac does the work, Artt ruins it by breaking off one arm – almost the only time we see him do any work) and on building a chapel before building a hut, through Trian’s bout of indigestion when he secretly consumes shellfish.  Artt is in command.  The descent towards starvation will continue until Artt does or commands something so absurd that the others snap, and this happens when Artt cuts down the island’s one tree, a rowan, to make a cross.  Trian who valued the tree and its berries as a sign of life on the island can’t help being outraged. The final stage is at least due as much to Trian and Cormac as to Artt: Cormac sees the usually very modest Trian undressed, realises he lacks a penis, and tells Artt this by way of excusing his outburst over the rowan tree.  Artt can now issue his final prohibition: no women on the island: Trian must leave. (What exactly Trian is, intersexually, is unclear. Gender definitions are not going to be nuanced in this world.) Trian leaves and Cormac leaves with him. Artt is well rid of them, or he tells himself that he is. If he is now going to starve to death, that is what he has wanted all along.

Artt is a fanatic and a figure of patriarchal power and negativity, but which period does he belong in, ours or that of seventh century Ireland?  The text gives hints pointing in different directions.  Cormac constantly entertains Trian with tales of the miracles worked by mostly Irish saints, to which Artt listens only grudgingly. The religion of the time is perhaps, then, varied enough to accommodate Artt’s grim negations as well as the generous surpassing of necessity and the laws of nature that enlivens most of Cormac’s stories of miracles done in the interest of kindness and getting people off the hook, or, alternatively, these are real saints in their generosity and their power over nature, and Artt with his negativity is not. Again, as Donoghue mentions in her Author’s Note (255), the monks who actually settled Skellig Michael kept sheep, goats and pigs, traded with the mainland, and perhaps moved there in winter: more in the spirit of Cormac and Trian, who simply assumed at first that they would trade with the mainland. Artt is again the outlier.

It seems to me not exactly that Artt is a figure from of our time, which is occupied in imagining the follies and tyrannies of patriarchy, but is presented as perennial. His religion, his self-serving citations of the Bible, his repeated ‘God will provide’, his asceticism and mania for copying what will never be read, or even copied again, is the form that his age is giving to a perennial, patriarchal, drive to negation. Similarly, the practical improvisations and hard work of Trian and Cormac are perennial; they are what an ordinary person would do if they found themselves on Skellig, though no doubt done better by Trian and Cormac, for a while, than many could manage. Yet their innocent obedience, which is the condition for their persisting in this practical work for as long as they do (and until they are in danger of death), does seem the historical mark of their time, of their being monks.  Yet even this could be seen as the historical form that cloaks the co-dependence that can lead people to submit to men like Artt, or Sam Pollitt.

There is another and probably a more fruitful way of approaching this question of the historical and the perennial. Artt never sees that he is tyrannical and crazy, nor do Trian and Cormac see that their obedience is enabling Artt and undermining all their practical work at survival.  This awareness is left to the reader, and it builds in intensity as the story unfolds, Cormac and Trian’s common sense suggestions and mitigations are stymied, and Artt’s demands become more crazy. The burden of modernising the characters, or at least of seeing the perennial in their behaviours, is on the reader, who has to cope with the frustration of being unable to communicate this awareness to the characters, whose course is set..