The medieval monastic ideal of ora et labora (prayer and work) makes for a surprisingly compelling and suspenseful adventure in the hands of Donoghue, who excels at creating characters who make the best of bad situations, finding transcendence in the smallest details of daily life. Age quod agis, the monks of Haven remind each other when anxiety rears its head—focus on what you’re doing, and let God’s plan take care of itself. They’re facing an extraordinary challenge. An intense visionary, Father Artt, has plucked grizzled convert Cormac and devoted novice Trian from their comfortable monastery and led them to the isolated peak of Skellig Michael, a mountain in the midst of the Atlantic a few miles off the coast of Ireland. They are the monks who, in Donoghue’s imagining, first founded the monastery that has perched atop that peak since about the 7th century.
The nine-month ordeal that follows the monks’ landing on the rocky island is a marvel of detailed, intimate storytelling. Day by day, competent Cormac and intrepid Trian scrape survival from the rock and the birds that inhabit it, creating ingenious systems for gardening, hunting, and masonry, which allow Artt to pursue his prayer and scripture copying in peace. Their talents, however, are wasted on their grandiose leader, whose ascetic rejection of practical concerns threatens disaster for his tiny flock.
In fact, this short novel is really a parable about the narcissism of the religious fanatic, and the contrasting endurance of human communities. The three monks represent the conflicting religious imperatives of faith versus works in the most vivid way possible, although there’s no doubt which side we’re meant to sympathize with more. The austere beauties of Skellig Michael make the island itself a fourth character, earning this book a place among classics of ecological fiction.