Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

Review: Haven by Emma DonoghueHaven by Emma Donoghue
Narrator: Aidan Kelly
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 272
Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Audible Audio on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three men vow to leave the world behind them. They set out in a small boat for an island their leader has seen in a dream, with only faith to guide them. What they find is the extraordinary island now known as Skellig Michael. Haven has Emma Donoghue’s trademark world-building and psychological intensity—but this story is like nothing she has ever written before.
In seventh-century Ireland, a scholar and priest called Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind. Taking two monks—young Trian and old Cormac—he rows down the river Shannon in search of an isolated spot on which to found a monastery. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find an impossibly steep, bare island inhabited by tens of thousands of birds, and claim it for God. In such a place, what will survival mean?

My Review:

Some books make me think. Some books make me feel. This book made me want to push one of the characters off of a very high cliff. And there are plenty of precipitous crags and rocky outcroppings to choose from on the Great Skellig.

Skellig Michael

(In case the location of this story sounds a bit familiar, it probably is. The Great Skellig is now known as Skellig Michael, and was the place where Luke’s Jedi retreat was filmed in The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.)

There really was a monastic retreat on Skellig Michael, and it probably was founded at the time this story is set, the 7th century AD. But probably, hopefully, not like this. Because the monastery at Skellig Michael seems to have had continuous occupation – barring the occasional Viking raid – from its founding through at least the 11th century.

That record of continuous occupation requires a level of both practicality and sanity that is just not present in this story. Haven could be read as a how NOT to do it book.

The opening is not exactly a reasonable start for the 21st century, but would have been for the 7th. Brother Artt, a well-known monastic scholar, has a dream that he and two other monks found a monastery that will be isolated from the temptations of the world. Artt sees those temptations everywhere, including in the safe and well-endowed monasteries of Ireland where he travels.

Artt’s real dilemma, however, is the one that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar so eloquently described a millennium later. That the fault is not in our stars – or in this case Artt’s stars or even his dreams – but in himself.

It’s not even that Artt is a rather extreme ascetic, not merely willing but seemingly desirous of giving up even the relatively spare comforts of an established monastery because they simply aren’t spare enough for his desire to punish himself to death. It’s that he takes two men with him into his remote, deprived and in some ways even depraved exile, and that because of the rules of the church they are sworn to obey him no matter how crazy he gets.

And he gets very crazy indeed. It’s Artt’s descent into madness and Cormac’s and Trian’s diligence and obedience – to the point of their own mental and emotional breaking – that forms the rocks and crags of this thoughtful, sometimes lyrical, but also exceedingly cold story.

Escape Rating C+: One of the things about reading is the way that it gives the reader the ability to step into another’s shoes and see the world as they might have seen it. This is a book that made me wonder just how far out of ourselves we are, or even should be, able to step.

It’s not just that Artt is an arsehole – although he certainly is in the way he treats Trian and Cormac – it’s that his arseholery comes from a place that is so foreign to me that he grates on me every bit as much as Cormac’s endless stories and Trian’s burbling chatter grate on him. (And I’m saying that even though Artt’s reaction to their constant need to make verbal noise would drive me just as far round the twist as it does him.) Howsomever, while I don’t share their religious faith – let alone the almost blind way in which they practice it – I can see both reason and fellowship in Cormac’s practicality, just as I can in Trian’s youthful curiosity. I can walk a bit in their shoes – or sandals as the case may be.

Artt I’d prefer to throw off one of the rocks. But because his outlook on life is so completely foreign to me, I spent an uncomfortable half of the story caught between wondering if that’s because his perspective is so alien – or if he’s just an arsehole and he’d be one in any time and place in which he found himself. But as the situation on Skellig Michael became increasingly dire, and Artt’s response to the direness of those circumstances and his complete, total and utter unwillingness to consider ANY of the practicalities of their inevitable plight I reached the conclusion that he was just an insecure and angry arsehole and that he’d be one no matter what the situation. His arseholery would just manifest differently in other times and places.

So this is not a comfortable story and not just because of the increasing discomfort of the monks’ situation. And that is well beyond uncomfortable. But Cormac and Trian are under the rule of an emotionally and psychologically abusive master and what we witness is their increasing desperation and self-blame as they attempt to reconcile what they’ve been taught to believe with the increasing insanity of what they feel compelled to do.

One of the few shining lights of this story was that I listened to the audiobook instead of reading the text. I probably would not have continued without the audio because this story felt so brutal. But the narrator Aiden Kelly was excellent. I have to particularly call out that he did a terrific job of making the three men’s voices sound so distinct that I could easily tell one from another even when dropping back into the audio after a day or two away from it. His reading elevated the book to that plus in the rating.

In the end, I’d have to say that I’d recommend this narrator unreservedly, and I’ll look for more audiobooks he’s been part of. The book, on the other hand, I’d be guarded about who I recommended it to. The writing, as I said, is lovely to the point of being lyrical, but this story is so very cold. The author is extremely popular, but for someone looking for an introduction to her work I’d definitely choose something else, either The Pull of the Stars or Room.

And if someone is interested in historical fiction about this time period in Ireland in general and the Catholic Church in Ireland at this period in particular, I’d recommend the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne, which begins with Absolution By Murder. These are historical mysteries, featuring a central character who is both part of the church and a practicing lawyer. She’s also, I have to say, someone who Artt would detest on sight, so recommending her instead of him seems like a bit of well-deserved payback.

Review: Reader I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

Review: Reader I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy ChevalierReader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre by Tracy Chevalier, Joanna Briscoe, Susan Hill, Elizabeth McCracken, Nadifa Mohamed, Audrey Niffenegger, Patricia Park, Francine Prose, Namwali Serpell, Elif Shafak, Lionel Shriver, Salley Vickers, Emma Donoghue, Evie Wyld, Helen Dunmore, Esther Freud, Jane Gardam, Linda Grant, Kirsty Gunn, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall
Formats available: paperback, ebook, library binding, audiobook
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on March 22nd 2016
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This collection of original stories by today’s finest women writers—including Tracy Chevalier, Francine Prose, Elizabeth McCracken, Tessa Hadley, Audrey Niffenegger, and more—takes inspiration from the opening line in Charlotte Brontë’s most beloved novel, Jane Eyre.
A fixture in the literary canon, Charlotte Brontë is revered by readers all over the world. Her novels featuring unforgettable, strong heroines still resonate with millions today. And who could forget one of literature’s best-known lines: “Reader, I married him” from her classic novel Jane Eyre?
Part of a remarkable family that produced three acclaimed female writers at a time in 19th-century Britain when few women wrote, and fewer were published, Brontë has become a great source of inspiration to writers, especially women, ever since. Now in Reader, I Married Him, twenty of today’s most celebrated women authors have spun original stories, using the opening line from Jane Eyre as a springboard for their own flights of imagination.
Reader, I Married Him will feature stories by:
Tracy Chevalier
Tessa Hadley
Sarah Hall
Helen Dunmore
Kirsty Gunn
Joanna Briscoe
Jane Gardam
Emma Donoghue
Susan Hill
Francine Prose
Elif Shafak
Evie Wyld
Patricia Park
Salley Vickers
Nadifa Mohamed
Esther Freud
Linda Grant
Lionel Shriver
Audrey Niffenegger
Namwali Serpell
Elizabeth McCracken
Unique, inventive, and poignant, the stories in Reader, I Married Him pay homage to the literary genius of Charlotte Brontë, and demonstrate once again that her extraordinary vision continues to inspire readers and writers.

My Review:

jane eyre by charlotte bronteJust like it says on the label, this is a collection of short stories “inspired by” Jane Eyre. Before I get into the quality of the stories, I’d like to touch on that “inspired by” bit.

I’ll confess it has been a long time since I read Jane Eyre. And I’ll also say that it will probably be a long time, if ever, before I read it again. While it feels like a progenitor of the Gothic romance school, Jane’s situation as an impoverished governess, and her realistic lack of options just aren’t things that float my boat. I prefer situations where the hero and heroine at least approach equality, or get as close to it as seems remotely reasonable for the time period.

That being said, I approached this collection wondering how and where contemporary authors would take Jane and her story. The results feel mixed to me. Not just in the sense that any short story collection has winners and losers (and readers varying opinions on which are which) but also mixed in regards to their use of Jane Eyre as inspiration. There were stories that felt close to the original, and stories where the inspiration seemed tangential. Sometimes even tenuous.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

But the stories in the collection that stick with me are the ones that hewed closely in some way to some aspect of the original story. The ones that seemed to use Jane as a looser starting point didn’t have the same impact for this reader. They felt like the didn’t fit within the collection unless one squints very hard and tilts one’s head to the proper degree sideways.

The title story by Susan Hill, is a case in point. While it takes off from the famous line, “Reader, I Married Him,” The “I” in this particular story is Wallis Warfield Simpson, and the “him” is Edward, Duke of Windsor, the man who was briefly King Edward VIII. The story felt sad, but then, their lives also felt sad, and possibly just as pointless as they are in this story. The story, while certainly interesting and providing a very different perspective on this famous couple, felt as if it had nothing to do with the theme at hand.

On the other hand, I loved Lionel Shriver’s “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”. Just as in the Susan Hill story, I’m not sure what, if anything it draws from Jane Eyre. On the other hand, I just really liked the story.

As far as those stories that have more a more obvious relationship to Jane Eyre, there were three that haunted me for different reasons, although they all have a slightly creepy factor.

Helen Dunmore gives an angry but resigned voice to one of the secondary characters in the story in “Grace Pool Her Testimony”. It allows us to view the story from a radically different point of view. It is also a “below stairs” story, where we see the doings of the household from the perspective of someone who was always present, but seemingly invisible. And the story provides insights into Rochester as a young man, and gives a surprising origin for little Adele. But it is Grace’s harsh and angry voice that sticks in the mind after the story is complete.

Salley Vickers tells us a story in Mr. Rochester’s voice in “Reader, She Married Me” but while the story is told from his perspective after the end of the novel, it is not the happily ever after one might expect. Instead, from Rochester’s point of view, blind and dependent on Jane as a result of his injuries from the fire, we see Jane quite differently. Instead of a triumphant heroine we see a manipulative woman who only married him because she now has the upper hand in their relationship, and that is what she has been scheming for all along. This isn’t a story about love, it’s a story about power.

Likewise, “The Mirror” by Francine Prose is also a story about power, but in this case all the power is in the hands of Rochester, although like the Vickers’ story The Mirror also takes place after the end of the novel. In this modern re-imagining, Jane and Rochester are in couples’ counseling after their marriage. As the years have gone by, Rochester has become increasingly insistent that his first wife died long before the fateful fire, and that Jane made up all of the incidents related in the story. And most telling of all, that it was a parrot that Jane heard in the attic. While Jane wants to save their marriage, Rochester is increasingly insistent that Jane is unbalanced, and both Jane and the reader see that he is setting her up to be put away in an attic somewhere, just like his first wife. As the net closes around her, Jane questions everything she thought she knew – both about the true condition of the first Mrs. Rochester and about Edward’s own sanity or the lack thereof.

The Mirror is the story that gave me the most chills. I found The Self-Seeding Sycamore to be the most fun. A few of the stories neither felt related to the theme, nor did anything for me as stories. But overall, the collection is interesting and certainly has a couple of bright spots – or brightly creepy spots, as the case may be.

Escape Rating B for the collection as a whole.

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