Irish/Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue is one of those rare writers (my good friend Michelle Butler Hallett is another) whose novels exhibit a startling diversity of subject because she writes about literally whatever pops into her head to be interested in. There’s no “finding a groove and sticking with it” as many of us do, for an author like Donoghue. Emma Donoghue books I have loved have touched on topics ranging from Victorian divorces, to an 1876 smallpox epidemic in San Francisco, to a contemporary story about a woman and child held captive in a tiny room — probably her most commercially successful and best-known work. Donoghue could have followed up the massive success of Room by writing more contemporary fiction about victims of crime, but instead she continued to delve into dusty corners of the past such as an Irish girl allegedly surviving miraculously for months without eating, and a lesbian love story amid the chaos of the 1918 influenza epidemic (The Pull of the Stars, coming out in the summer of 2020, proved to be surprisingly timely, but only by accident — even if the timeline weren’t so tight, Donoghue is not an author you would ever accuse of writing a “pandemic novel” just to capitalize on current events).
All this lead-in is just to say that I will follow Emma Donoghue pretty much anywhere her fancy takes her, even if it takes her to an isolated, unpopulated island off the coast of Ireland in the 7th century CE. The place is Skellig Michael, where monastic communities have existed for centuries (it was the film setting for Luke Skywalker’s monastic-style retreat in the later Star Wars movies). But this novel is not based on the real history of any of those communities. Rather, it’s a story about three men: a single-minded, visionary monk, and the two companions he recruits in response to what he believes is a call from God to leave the monastery and set up an even more isolated contemplative community, far from any human interactions, in what some might call a God-forsaken place. The visionary monk, Artt, believes passionately that as God has called them to the island, God will provide everything they need to live there — a vision that inevitably clashes with the day-to-day realities the other two monks face as they try to keep themselves and Artt alive through the winter. I read most of this novel in a single night and found it engrossing and thought-provoking,.