James Yorkston’s The Book of the Gaels review – a lyrical, childlike view of an Irish road trip | Fiction

JScottish folk musician James Yorkston has recorded a series of critically acclaimed albums over a 20-year career – collaborations with artists like KT Tunstall, Alexis Taylor and Martin Carthy. In his writing, however, he is drawn to artistic failure. Her first novel, Three Crawls (2016), followed Johnny, a man who returns to Fife after difficult times in London which forced him to recognize that he will never succeed as an artist. Come now The Book of the Gaelsthe charismatic story of a struggling poet named Fraser who is about to learn the hard way that literature will not feed his two boys.

Opening in hardscrabble west Cork in the mid-1970s, it is told 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 lake when they were too young to remember, and a grief-stricken Fraser has since turned to worms. When a letter from a Dublin editor arrives, it inspires a picaresque road trip to the city, hitchhiking, sneaking ticketless onto buses and sneaking into churches to mock hosts and to sleep.

While there isn’t a shred of sentimentality here, Fraser’s flawed love for his boys is absolute. It can’t appease their hunger pangs, but it’s what will eventually redeem it and save them. As for his poems, they appear scattered throughout the novel, their stark, punchy lines the perfect foil for Joseph’s childlike tale in all its immediacy and mad bravery, its sweet and frightening confusions.

Of note, Fraser connects with more people by singing folk songs from his native land (he’s another Scotsman); he also earns more playing in the street than he ever does from typing on his typewriter. Indeed, the novel’s final chapters – a physical, fast-paced account of what happens when he and his guys fall into the clutches of a Dublin mobster, filled with daredevil escapades and cash hoards – feel like to a direct rebuke to the abstract paralysis of these poems.

It is undeniably a novel in a minor key, and yet its rhythms and cadences are constantly evolving, bringing the reader closer. Listen and you will even hear a note that could be described as poetic.

The Book of the Gaels by James Yorkston is published by Oldcastle (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply