In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt recalls his impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. Although the subject matter itself and many of the stories contained within the book are heartbreaking, McCourt’s writing mixes tragic situations and events with a searingly honest and lighthearted voice. It was a heartbreaking yet marvellous read, filled with lifelike people, shocking anecdotes and Irish wit.
Born in New York to Irish parents, Frank’s family return to Ireland after tragedy strikes the family when a baby daughter dies. Angela’s Ashes describes the dire poverty and struggles Frank faced living in Limerick with his doting mother, determined to protect and provide for her children, and an alcoholic, almost perpetually unemployed father. As he grows, Frank becomes more and more determined to “be a man”, earn money, provide for his family, and return to the land of opportunity – America. This book follows not only his family life, but also describes many aspects of Frank McCourt’s Ireland; as a Catholic in a country divided by religion, and in a society which fears sin, Hell, and the English above all things.
Although Angela’s Ashes is undoubtedly a depressing story, what made it stand out to me was that McCourt’s writing style itself is not depressing. At no point does it feel like McCourt is trying to force you to feel sorry for him. In fact, his narrative style is often funny, and it had the childlike tone of a young boy who barely understands what is happening around him for much of the book. I also liked that although many terrible things happen to Frank and his family, like deaths in the family, characters were defined by their strength of character. For instance, when I think of the character of Angela, my feelings are not only of pity for her loss and suffering, but also admiration and respect for her bravery and determination.
The humour in Angela’s Ashes was another fantastic aspect of the book. Amid passages of so much suffering, such as having to use wood from the walls of the McCourt’s house to keep a fire going, there were anecdotes that made me stop and laugh, like Frank accidentally causing the roof of the house to collapse by taking wood from the beams holding up the structure. Similarly, whilst painting a picture of an Irish city completely preoccupied by the Catholic religion and the atrocities of the English against the Irish, there’s the glorious line where Frank says, “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.” This line itself is a perfect example of Angela’s Ashes – a childhood mired in misery, suffering, and grief, all wrapped up with a bit of humour.
This humorous narrative voice also has the effect of making Angela’s Ashes a much more bearable read. I couldn’t have trudged through a 400-page book about children dying, walking around with broken shoes in the rain, being turned away from schools and struggling to make ends meat if every single word was written in an effort to make me weep. I would have surely ended up throwing the book across a room and wanting to tear my hair out – even with this humourous voice I felt guilty for taking the comforts in my life for granted! Also, this voice makes you really love Frank for his ability to make light of difficult times, and makes you root for him even when he does terrible things, like stealing money from employers (and even dead people), purely because he seems like the kind of guy who would cheer up your day. Its honesty and straight-talking tone makes you feel as if you are listening to the real Frank McCourt tell you stories – right from the horse’s mouth. At no point did I feel in the least bored by the story, nor at any point did I have to push myself to get through a particularly heavy, loaded with useless words passage. Rather, every single page felt like I was listening to a nice, chatty man tell me about his life.
In conclusion, I absolutely loved Angela’s Ashes. Despite having read that much of McCourt’s memoirs are exaggerated tales of his life, frankly, I don’t care. This book is so well written, that it feels like you are being transported into Limerick. You can almost feel the rain seeping through your clothes, you can almost smell the stink of the shared lavatory wafting in through the window, and you can feel the same drive that Frank feels when he plans his journey to America. And what else is a book like this supposed to do?