AAll nations are seduced by stories, and Ireland has long been susceptible to the warm thrill of mythology. Some cherished beliefs, however, are not only comforting but at least partly true. For example, when the Roman Empire collapsed, Irish scholars did save much of Europe’s literary heritage. Notice that this had as much to do with their remoteness and obscurity as it did with their zeal to learn.
Emma Donoghue’s latest novel takes a disenchanted look at these events. Set in the 7th century, it strips away the hazy hagiography that envelops that period, dispensing with saints and scholars in favor of cutthroat, imperfect humans. Although it retains some of the harshness and figurative grandeur of mythology, it is a tale that is under no illusions.
From the outset, it is rooted in an early medieval Ireland that was much more plural and fluid than is often thought. Artt, a learned priest recently returned from afar, arrives at the monastery of Cluain Mhic Nóise. Bringing with him new and uncompromising notions, he finds himself an honored if not entirely welcome guest, refusing the abbot’s wine and disparaging his lax observance of fast days. Donoghue does a deft dramatization in these opening pages, giving us a strong sense of a society still piecing together its disparate fabrics, a people who don’t so much embrace the light of Christ as put it where it wouldn’t be. embarrassing.
It is therefore to general relief that Artt announces his departure. God visited him dreaming, he explains, of a lonely island “far off in the western ocean.” But that’s not all. Artt’s dream, being divinely inspired, is also very specific. Taking two monks as companions, he must go to this storm-beaten rock – a place not “defiled by the breath of the world” – and find there a stronghold of prayer.
In fulfilling his vision, Artt settles on an unlikely pair of missionaries. Cormac is well past his prime, a grizzled brawler who only found Christ after a plague claimed his family and a rival clan his piece of land. Trian, meanwhile, is a simple youngster, “clumsy and weird” by his own sad admission. Neither is truly religious, but both are amazed enough to accept their new calling without a murmur. It also helps that they have little idea what this call will entail.
Artt’s Island turns out to be a place nothing could have prepared them for. Skellig Michael may be familiar to some from his appearances in later Star Wars films. A jagged mass of nearly bare rock, it towers over the Atlantic about seven miles off the Kerry coast. Were it not the site of a proper monastic settlement of that time, it could reasonably be called uninhabitable.
But when the pragmatic Cormac risks this opinion, he is severely reprimanded. “This place,” says Artt, “was reserved for us when Earth was created.” Accepting their fate, the monks climb to the ground. Their master may seem harsh and inscrutable but, for now, his authority is unquestionable. Although, by now we’ve glimpsed enough of Artt’s nature to guess what lies ahead.
Donoghue draws a lot of narrative nourishment from its arid landscape. Although they have little freedom, the brothers each discover inner resources that might otherwise have been overlooked. Trian, from a family of sailors, proves to be a skilled fisherman and, within his narrow confines, an avid explorer. Cormac takes care of a meager garden on their only usable land. But soon Artt banishes even those little consolations. A stone altar must be erected, though they have not the slightest shelter; scripture is to be copied, though their provisions are practically exhausted. “Divided, we will fall,” he insists. He proved himself right, but not in the way he expected.
Donoghue is an eclectic talent, and some of his fiction – like the tumultuous Frog Music – has encompassed large, colorful canvases. In the drama unfolding here, however, she returns to the radical minimalism of 2010s Room. Indeed, the two works share striking formal similarities: two characters struggle to preserve their humanity in total isolation while appeasing a relentless kidnapper .
Yet many authors are reworking familiar materials with powerful results. This is a miniature created with a muted palette, dark looking but filled with quietly beautiful detail. And its subject matter, of course, is universal: we’re all stuck on this rock, trying to keep hold of simple moral truths while quietly losing our minds. As poor young Trian said, in one of his darkest moments: “Even this unbearable life is still sweet.”