Books·First Look

Emma Donoghue's historical fiction book Haven imagines Ireland around the year 600 — read an excerpt now

The prolific Irish Canadian author is back with a novel set in 7th century Ireland during a time of plague and terror.
Emma Donoghue is a bestselling Irish Canadian author. (Mark Raynes Roberts)

Haven is the latest book from bestselling Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue

Donoghue's newest historical fiction work is set in 7th century Ireland in a time of plague and terror. A scholar priest named Artt has a dream in which God tells him to leave the sinful world behind. With two monks — young Trian and old Cormac — he rows down the River Shannon in search of an isolated spot in which to found a monastery.

Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find the steep, bare island known today as Skellig Michael. In such a place, what will survival mean? 

Donoghue is an Irish Canadian writer. Born in Dublin in 1969, she now lives in London, Ont., with her family. Her books include the novels LandingRoomFrog MusicThe Wonder and the children's book The Lotterys Plus One.

Donoghue's most recent novel, The Pull of the Stars, was released in July 2020. The bestselling book was longlisted for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize and shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. 

The Pull of the Stars explored the impact of the Spanish flu pandemic on marginalized people and was prescient during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Room has been adapted into a theatrical play and film starring Brie Larson. Larson won the Academy Award for best actress for the role. 

Donoghue told CBC Books that writing Haven was "definitely the strangest trip" she has been on, which is saying something for a writer who has penned stories set in a wide array of eras and locales — from 18th century London, to France in the Second World War, to a single room. She noted the story was the "perfect escape from the modern world" during the pandemic. 

"Getting into the head of zealous Christian monks in 7th century Ireland — a country with no towns or money  — took all the research and imagination I could muster," Donoghue said. 

"It's a sort of family adventure story in that it's about three very different characters trying to pull together to survive in circumstances so strange that at times it reads like sci-fi."

You can read an excerpt from Haven below.

Trian's stomach growls. He's not twenty yet, still growing, and always hungry.

The first fast-day after Easter, and the hall is crammed with more than thirty monks and their Abbot, as well as the families who serve them and work the land. 

Even the Abbess is here, though not her nuns, who dine in their quarters at the other end of the double monastery. Also half a dozen strangers, come to Cluain Mhic Nóis to study with one of the celebrated teachers, or for a few months or weeks of respite from the grasping world.

The Abbot's led the congregation in saying grace in Latin, and is eating already. Trian gestures to his neighbour to help himself to roast swan and onions from their platter. Then Trian spoons what's left onto his own trencher. He makes himself chew slowly, and rations out his ale in sips. The rich meat's gone down all too soon, and then he lets himself eat half the round of three-day-old bread, saturated with savoury juice. His red-faced neighbour downs another cup of ale, belches, and looks sideways at Trian's remaining bread.

Trian's stomach growls. He's not twenty yet, still growing, and always hungry.

Trian pushes it towards him. Sits still and tells himself that he's had enough, Deo gratias, thank God. Chatter, argument, laughter; the hubbub of Gaelic rises and fills the hall like smoke. Out of the corner of his eye Trian catches a shape looming in the doorway: the stranger called Artt, who walks along the wall now, away from the Abbot's table, and lowers himself onto a bench at the back of the hall. 

Trian's fascinated. This Artt has the bearing of a warrior king, but he behaves like a scrupulous monk working out a long penance. It's been a fortnight since Trian took the boat across the river to ferry this man over to the monastery, carried Artt's meagre possessions to the guest hut, washed his broad feet (cracked nails, a sign of hard travels), and brought him food, and Trian hasn't dared address a word to him yet. Of course the monks have shared every scrap of information and hearsay. 

Scholar, priest, hermit, Artt is the most famous visitor to Cluain Mhic Nóis in the six years Trian's been here, and possibly in the half century since its founding. From a clan of judges in the West, fostered out to a holy man at the age of Seven — as soon as Artt knew more than his master, he sought out another, and another, but outshone them all. Now in his prime, familiar with many tongues, the sage is said to have read every book written, and has copied out dozens. 

Artt can work complex sums in his mind and chart the tracks of the stars. One of the band of solitaries who've been carrying the light of the Gospel from Ireland across a pagan-gripped continent, this soldier for Christ has converted whole tribes among the Picts, the Franks, even the Lombards.

Still, Artt looks to Trian as fresh as if he's just returned from the Land of Youth. Brown-haired, grey-eyed, the man is as brawny as some hero who can toss with one hand a boulder twice the size of his head. Artt's single blemish — the blackened stump of the little finger on his massive right hand — is rumoured to be a mark of God's favour: proof that he's done the impossible by surviving the plague.

Now Artt is sitting with his trencher dry in front of him, shaking his head no matter what he's offered. As Trian watches, Artt breaks off a piece of the bread and chews it. He ignores the ale flasks and fills his beaker with water. At the top of the hall, a monk is speaking into the Abbot's right ear, their eyes on the honoured guest as the boy refills their cups with wine.

Trian's fascinated. This Artt has the bearing of a warrior king, but he behaves like a scrupulous monk working out a long penance.

The Abbot smacks the table. When the noise quietens, he calls out, 'Brother Artt, are none of our dishes to your taste?' Artt answers in his deep, melodious voice. 'Thank you, Father. I keep the fast.'

'As do we all, every week, to mark the day our Lord Christ was put to death.' The Abbot smiles stiffly at the heaped remains on his platter. 'Don't waterfowl count as fish, since they feed only on fish and weeds?' Artt's sharply incised lips press together. 'By custom more than by logic.'

Too little air in this stifling hall. Trian feels sick, thinking of how greedily he gulped down his own portion of swan, and still longs for more. The Abbot's flushed now. 'Will you take eggs or cheese, then?' Artt sips his water while the whole community waits. 'No thank you.' The silence stretches.

'Nor butter, milk, nor whey. Whatever comes out of an animal is of the same nature as its flesh.'

Excerpt from Haven by Emma Donoghue. Copyright © 2022 Emma Donoghue. Published by HarperCollins Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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