When it was first published in Ireland in 1986, Stones of Aran won a literary prize and a great deal of praise. It is a strange book, at once a meditation on and a journey around the island of Aran off the west coast of Ireland. The meditation takes its form from the journey, as does the journey from the meditation. Although the island itself, in all its coastal detail, its geology, history, folklore, flora and fauna, is the book's subject, it is oddly elusive. Despite the fact that Tim Robinson's account is the story of a pilgrimage, exhaustively detailed and loyal to every intimation, there is no ultimate moment or place of devotion. The quest is an end in itself, and it is not perhaps a quest for Aran but a quest to which Aran gives shape and meaning. Beaches, rocks, seaweed, cliffs, tides, inlets, legends, stories, ruins, insects, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, the weather, the effects of light and shade, the spectacle of the Atlantic and the quiet gaze of Connemara are all described, pondered, looked upon with a tactful, eager strategic care that is as tender in its address as an admission of love. Yet it is the love of someone who can never, for all that effort and discipline, do sufficient justice to the loved place. Aran is not just an island to him. It is an ultimate place, the extreme form of a subject which can only be invented in writing and yet stands there as a rebuke to any attempt to represent its ageless, harsh actuality. It is so actual it demands to be represented and, of course, cannot be. There is always that surplus, that excess of the real which humiliates even the most painstaking research and the most finely modulated prose.
LRB 16 March 1989 | PDF Download