The Scottish folk musician James Yorkston has recorded a string of critically acclaimed albums over a 20-year career – collaborations with the likes of KT Tunstall, Alexis Taylor and Martin Carthy. In his writing, however, he is drawn to artistic failure. His debut novel, Three Craws (2016), followed Johnny, a man returning to Fife after hard times in London forces him to acknowledge that he’s never going to make it as an artist. Now comes The Book of the Gaelsthe charismatic tale of a struggling poet named Fraser who is about to learn the hard way that literature isn’t going to feed his two boys.
Opening in hardscrabble west Cork in the mid-1970s, it’s narrated by Fraser’s 10-year-old son, Joseph, who, like his younger brother, Paul, spends a lot of time hungry and cold. Their mother drowned in a nearby lough when they were too young to remember, and grief-addled Fraser has since turned to verse. When a letter from a Dublin publisher arrives, it inspires a picaresque road trip to the city, hitchhiking, sneaking ticketless on to buses and stealing into churches to scoff the communion wafers and bed down.
While there’s not a shred of sentimentality here, flawed Fraser’s love for his boys is absolute. It can’t quell their hunger pains, but it’s what will ultimately redeem him and save them. As for his poems, they appear scattered throughout the novel, their spare, stricken lines the perfect foil for Joseph’s child’s-eye narrative in all its immediacy and madcap bravery, its confusions sweet and fearful.
It’s noticeable that Fraser connects with more people by belting out folk songs from his homeland (he’s another Scotsman); he earns more, too, by busking than he ever does bashing away on his typewriter. Indeed, the novel’s later chapters – a fast-moving, physical account of what happens when he and his lads fall into the clutches of a Dublin gangster, replete with daredevil getaways and stashes of cash – feel like a direct rebuke to the abstracted paralysis of those poems.
There’s no denying that this is a novel in a minor key, and yet its rhythms and cadences are constantly evolving, drawing the reader closer. Listen out for it and you’ll even hear a note that might be described as poetic.