Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Read: 23 January, 2013

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Angela’s Ashes is a memoir of Francis McCourt’s childhood, first as a young child to Irish parents in America, and then growing into adulthood in Limerick, Ireland. It’s a childhood of extreme poverty, and all of consequences of that.

It’s a brutal book, and it never lets up. Several reviewers have called the book a “laundry list of the terrible things that happen to the McCourt family,” and in many ways that’s pretty accurate. The happiest moments of the novel, when little Frankie forms a connection with two separate girls, end with those girls dying. Yeah, that’s the kind of book this is.

I quite liked the writing style. I know that there are many who found it irritating, but the short sentences gave it that breathlessness that children get when telling a story. For me, this served to reflect the narrator’s youth during the events of the book, and it heightened its impact.

In some ways, given how relentlessly depressing the book is, I kept expecting it to get worse. Every time Frankie was alone with a priest, I thought “oh no, this is where it happens…” But, thankfully, it never does.

One thing that impressed upon me as I was reading was Frankie’s vulnerability and passivity. Even as an adult, when he’s finally making decisions for himself and leaving Ireland, he has very little say in what happens to him. Though bound for New York, the boat captain simply decides to go to Albany instead and he is forced to come along. When they make a stop and a woman decides to have sex with him, he can do little other than lie down and accept her advances. He may enjoy it and be glad it happened, but it’s still something that happens to him.

It was a frustrating read, of course, as so many of the problems stem from the father’s alcoholism, the mother’s complacency, and the lack of knowledge of both. But all the characters – even the father who takes his dole money to the pub while his children starve at home – are treated with such compassion that it’s hard to feel anything other than pity for the whole family.

It’s a wonderful book full of interesting characters and funny moments and sadness… It would have been so easy for McCourt to write with anger, to lay blame with the various individual choices, institutions, and the sexism that cause nearly all of the suffering he describes. But instead, he merely relays his experiences and we are left to draw our own complicated conclusions.

I highly recommend reading Angela’s Ashes. Just remember to keep tissues handy.

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