The Book of the Gaels by James Yorkston review – a lyrical, child’s-eye view of an Irish road trip

The folk musician’s picaresque tale of a struggling Scottish writer and his sons en route from Cork to Dublin quietly captures artistic failure and redemption

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 force him to acknowledge that he’s never going to make it as an artist. Now comes The Book of the Gaels, the 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.

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