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Book Review: ‘Three Craws’ by James Yorkston

three craws

Recent political events have sharply thrown into focus the disintegrating nature of the UK’s national identity; and yet, in mainstream publishing at least, there are few books that provide much focus on the myriad different cultures and voices that make up this (non-) United Kingdom. It is for this reason that James Yorkston’s debut novel Three Craws stands out as an important piece of writing.

In 1748, Adam Smith’s Lectures of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres began what can be seen as a near colonial, conscious effort to standardize the English Language and cultivate the “most imperfect” dialects found in regions of Britain. And this standardisation has arguably led to the obliteration of entire cultures and communities: with thousands of “non-standard” voices pushed to the margins as inherently other.

If you take away an individual’s language, you take away their ability to speak, to communicate with those around them. In doing so, you take away their heritage, their culture, their syntax and meaning. Without these things, they cannot have a voice, a self, and their freedom to express themselves is restricted.

Yorkston’s Three Craws acts as a subversion of this this controlling language, this “Standard English”. The changes in syntax, the interior monologue technique and the frequent use of expletives such as “fuck”, act as a retort to the conception that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to speak or that one group of people’s words have more right to appear on the page or in the media than those of others.

Stunning vernacular monologues litter this potent novel that, at times, feels somewhat of a cross between Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man and Welsh’s Trainspotting. Yet while there are similarities with both; this novel also very much feels like its own work.

Indeed, the sense of place is what is perhaps most interesting in this book, which articulates the paradoxical nature of so many small-town rural upbringings: of wanting to flee the boredom and nothing-ever-happens-around-here feel while never quite being able to escape the inevitable draw of ‘home’ (whatever that term may mean).

This stock is set out early on in the novel, as Fife-raised Johnny can’t resist one last drink in his local London pub before returning north of the border, and there meets an ex-pat Scot who tells him: “Folk will be happy to see ye crawling hame. Thing is Johnny – just the getting away, that’s success. Staying up there and rotting – that’s the failure. And that’s why they’ll’ve wanted you to’ve failed. So they feel better.”

And yet, there are moments – fleeting memories – where the nostalgia for this rural childhood emerges in ways that precisely articulate what the countryside has to offer that no city can. In ‘Chups’, Johnny remembers “building castles in the hay […] the beautiful damp smell of the hay bales […] jimmying our way into other farmers’ lofts, exploring ancient old desks, sniffing at the necks of many, many discarded wine bottles…” – and in that moment, for any reader who’s childhood was filled more with the rhythms of the farmyards than the urban heartbeat, it is as though Yorkston has plucked something extremely close and incredibly personal from your own heart and laid it out, exposed on the page.

It is through such moments that Three Craws really comes into its own. A raggedly intense use of language makes the writing feel acutely lyrical, and ensures the work demands total engagement.

To purchase ‘Three Craws’ visit Freight Books 

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