Emma Donoghue prefers extreme situations. Not for herself – ”I’m very well-balanced” – she admits. But her characters? The more intensely acute the stakes, the more interested she is. “I’d never write a novel about me.”
The hyper-pressurized scenarios are reserved for her fictional characters; some self-imposed, others enacted upon more vulnerable characters. “Like in Room, she’s been kidnapped and locked up,” says Donoghue, referring to her 2010 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, which she also wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for, and adapted for the stage. “But sometimes you create your own extreme situation.”
This premise unites Donoghue’s two current projects, the film adaptation of her 2016 novel The Wonder (screening at TIFF next week) and her just-released novel, Haven. Both offer self-made extremity in the form of religious zeal, viewed through a historical lens. The Wonder, directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman; Disobedience) and starring Florence Pugh, focuses on Anna (newcomer Kila Lord Cassidy), a young girl in 19th-century Ireland who hasn’t eaten in four months, convinced that God has relieved her of the need. As a living saint, Anna becomes a source of celebrity and spectacle. Florence Pugh’s character, Lib, a nurse and nun, is brought in to investigate Anna’s unusual case.
Haven, which Donoghue wrote through the pandemic (although it was conceived of before), adds a jolt of isolation and physical airlessness to the extreme conditions, enlisting three 6th-century Irish monks, essentially strangers to each other, on a holy journey to establish a hermitage in uncharted territory. They eventually land on a forbidding, boney-sounding skellig – a steep, rocky island – which pierces the ocean’s surface like a Gothic cathedral forged by nature.
“They’re both about religious obsession,” says Donoghue of the two stories – though with different expressions of gender, power and personality. In both The Wonder and Haven, the lead characters are driven by passion, convinced of their truths. “Even if everyone around them doesn’t see it that way,” says Donoghue. “There are times when it’s a bit like having a relative who’s been sucked into QAnon,” she adds, referring to the monks in Haven. “You think, how can they believe this, how can everything confirm them further in their view? And then other times there’s a certain magnificence to their single-minded commitment.”
The Wonder’s director, Sebastian Lelio, is no stranger to the drama of devout communities. His 2017 film Disobedience explored a love story between two women (played by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams), set in the closely controlled world of London’s Orthodox Jews. “Sebastian comes to each film fresh,” says Donoghue. “When we first met, I asked, ‘Have you ever been to Ireland?’ He said ‘No, but, being Chilean, I think I can understand what it is to be a people subjugated to the Catholic Church.’”
In Haven, subjugation takes the form of Artt, a man of muscular piety whose devotion to God conceals, and authorizes, a palpable disdain for his fellow monks. “The farther from men, the closer to God,” he declares as they approach their landing spot, previously untouched by any human. “You can see that [Artt] likes the fact that the rules he believes in give him all the power on the island. He’s literally made himself king of their world. And yet, he’s not a hypocrite. He truly is willing to suffer the same chaos.”
Artt may not be appealing, but he is compelling, to both the two monks who follow him on his sacred journey, and to the reader (whether one likes it or not). “I’m fascinated by these cult situations,” says Donoghue. “The way they always have a very charming leader, and at first they seem to offer a lifeline to somebody who is adrift. And of course, he does bring them somewhere extraordinary. They wouldn’t have made it to that island without his mad zeal.” She pauses. “I actually sympathize with Artt. What is it to write a book if not to have a mad dream?”
The island is itself a formidable character – unnamed in the novel, now known as Skellig Michael – a “twin-pinnacled crag” according to Wikipedia, not 13 kilometres from the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. Here, Donoghue’s writing is at its most intoxicating, describing the boisterous avian and scant-yet-hardy plant life that makes up the island’s rich ecosystem. Some of the novel’s most intense conflicts occur between the monks and the great rock that Artt attempts to take possession of.
“I was so aware that this was a microcosmic story about the relationship between humans and nature, and also as a colonizing project,” says Donoghue. “There may not be any other people on the island but they treat those birds very much like: ‘You haven’t been using this island, right? We’re going to take it over, you know, use it for God’s purpose.’ But of course, it’s a beautiful ecosystem already.”
As Donoghue tells it, the difficulty of writing climate fiction (“cli-fi”) is that it requires such a lengthy timeline. “You can’t literally show a species going extinct in the course of your novel, unless it’s a very long novel.” Instead, she features birds, like the Great Auk, which were famously wiped out by humans. “It’s not that the monks wipe them out in one season, but I show them killing indiscriminately, with no thought of balance on the island. I wanted to show habits which would ultimately wreck everything.”
Despite the anachronistic perspective that contours Haven’s plot, the novel is also a heavily researched representation of monks from that time period – right down to the rough underwear, “braies,” that they wear. “I’ve never seen historical fiction as escapist or avoiding your duty to represent your times,” says Donoghue. “You always represent your times. You bring the questions of your era to it.”
This carries through to Donoghue’s forthcoming historical novel, Learned by Heart (set for an August, 2023, release), which draws on her 30-year obsession with Anne Lister’s five-million-word secret journal. The novel tells the queer love story shared between Lister (who is also the inspiration for BBC One/HBO’s Gentleman Jack) and Eliza Raine, an orphan heiress banished from India to England at age six. “The historical novelist is bringing with her all the questions she wants to ask. I’m fascinated by gender, and I bring that concern to everything I write,” says Donoghue. “I’m fascinated by environmental change and by the politics of the colonial project. All that is naturally going to come with me, just as the monks bring their baggage no matter how much they try. They’re carrying a mindset that they can’t leave behind.”
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