All nations beguile themselves with stories, and Ireland has long been susceptible to the warm tingle of mythology. Some cherished beliefs, though, are not only comforting but at least partly true. For instance, during the collapse of the Roman empire, Irish scholars really did salvage much of Europe’s literary heritage. Mind you, this had as much to do with their remoteness and obscurity as their zeal for learning.
Emma Donoghue’s latest novel takes a disenchanted view of these events. Set in the seventh century, it strips away the misty hagiography shrouding this period, dispensing with saints and scholars in favour of striving and imperfect humans. Though it retains some of the starkness and figurative grandeur of mythology, this is a tale that entertains no illusions.
From the outset, it grounds itself in an early medieval Ireland that was much more plural and fluid than is often supposed. 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 honoured if not entirely welcome guest, refusing the abbot’s wine and disparaging his lax observance of fast days. Donoghue does some deft scene-setting in these early pages, giving us a strong sense of a society still stitching together its disparate fabrics, a people not so much embracing the light of Christ as putting it where it wouldn’t be in the way.
It is to general relief, then, that Artt announces his departure. God has visited him with a dream, he explains, of a solitary island “far away, in the western ocean”. But that’s not all. Artt’s dream, being divinely inspired, is also highly specific. Taking two monks as companions, he is to journey to this storm-lashed rock – a place not “tainted by the breath of the world” – and found upon it a bastion of prayer.
In fulfilment of his vision, Artt settles upon an unlikely pair of missionaries. Cormac is well past his prime, a grizzled brawler who found Christ only after a plague claimed his family and a rival clan his patch of land. Trian, meanwhile, is a mere youth, “ungainly and odd” by his own rueful admission. Neither is much of a true believer, but both are sufficiently awed to accept their new calling without a murmur. It helps, too, that they have little notion of just what that calling will entail.
Artt’s island proves to be a place for which nothing could have prepared them. Skellig Michael may be familiar to some from its appearances in later Star Wars movies. A jagged mass of almost naked rock, it towers above the Atlantic seven miles or so off the Kerry coast. Were it not the site of a real monastic settlement from this period, it could reasonably be described as uninhabitable.
But when the pragmatic Cormac ventures this opinion, he is sternly rebuked. “This place,” Artt declares, “was set aside for us when the Earth was made.” Accepting their lot, the monks clamber ashore. Their master may seem harsh and inscrutable but, for the time being, his authority is unquestionable. Though, by now, we have glimpsed enough of Artt’s nature to guess at what lies before them.
Donoghue wrings plenty of narrative sustenance from her barren landscape. Though they are granted little liberty, the brothers each discover inner resources that might otherwise have been overlooked. Trian, from a seafaring family, proves an adept fisherman and, within his narrow bounds, a keen explorer. Cormac tends a meagre garden on their lone patch of workable ground. But soon Artt banishes even these small consolations. A stone altar must be raised, though they lack the barest shelter; the scripture must be copied, though their provisions are all but exhausted. “Divided, we’ll fall,” he insists. He’s proved right, but not in the way he foresees.
Donoghue is an eclectic talent, and some of her fiction – such as the riotous Frog Music – has encompassed broad and colourful canvases. In the drama that unfolds here, though, she returns to the radical minimalism of 2010’s Room. Indeed, the two works share striking formal similarities: two characters struggle to preserve their humanity in utter isolation while appeasing an implacable captor.
Still, many writers rework familiar materials with potent results. This is a miniature created with a muted palette, sombre in aspect but crowded with quietly beautiful details. And its subject, of course, is a universal one: we’re all stuck on this rock, trying to keep hold of simple moral truths while quietly losing our minds. As poor young Trian puts it, in one of his darkest moments: “Even this unbearable life is still sweet.”