Book review: The Book of the Gaels, by James Yorkston

Charting the hand-to-mouth existence of a penniless poet and his two sons in 1970s Ireland, James Yorkston’s new novel is a dark and desperate odyssey, writes Fiona Shepherd

Musician James Yorkston has chronicled his own road trips in It’s Lovely To Be Here: The Touring Diaries of a Scottish Gent and the impulsive, almost slapstick exploits of a group of Fife friends in his 2016 novel Three Craws. His latest work, The Book of the Gaels, traces a darker, more desperate odyssey with precious little light along the way.

“This is how I remember it” says eleven-year-old narrator Joseph, our keen eyes and ears. At his side, and in permanent need of a pee, is his younger brother Paul. They live with their da, Fraser Donald McLeod, a taciturn Scot, in rural Cork in the Seventies, though it might as well be the 1870s for all the dignity of their impoverished existence, where “yesterday’s bread” is a treat and a feast.

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Disabled with grief following the drowning of his wife and the boys’ mother, dad locks himself away with booze when he can get it and poetry when he can write it. He reckons his words, collected as The Book of the Gaels, are all he can reasonably offer the world, and mostly he leaves his sons to fend for themselves while he festers in the pub.

James Yorkston PIC: Ren Rox
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Yorkston sketches their privations simply and practically – the boys are barely living hand to mouth, all their imagination and potential a hostage to their rumbling bellies. The promise of a school lunch is dangled to get them into education but it’s a promise withheld by the nuns. Lessons in a language they don’t understand are the least of their worries.

These early experiences are among the most engaging episodes of a story which only gets grimmer when Fraser uproots his family on a fool’s errand to Dublin, an operation which involves negotiated entrances and furtive exits, and relies on the modest charity of those they meet along the way, from extra communion wafers to hash cake.

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From his kid’s eye view, Joseph sees much, comprehends a little, intuits moods and leaves the reader to fill in the rest – often via a conveniently overheard conversation. His sense of adventure, communicated with a glimmer of superiority (“we who are going places, seeing the sights”) is dashed in Dublin, an almost Dickensian slough of misery where Fraser can raise more money by begging than by selling poems. From here, the family are plunged into action they didn’t ask for – the reader is spared the full extent of the gory details but our plucky narrator senses the menace, and a combination of fight and flight might prove their only way out.

The Book of the Gaels, by James Yorkston, Oldcastle Books, £9.99

The Book of the Gaels, by James Yorkston