Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt: A Book Review
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Oh boy, let the waterworks begin.
Published in 1996 and winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, Angela’s Ashes is the 368 page, first memoir of Irish-American writer and professor Frank McCourt. Told through a series of chronological anecdotes in eighteen chapters, McCourt recounts his childhood which is troubled to say the least. The sequel ‘Tis was published in 1999 and followed with Teacher Man in 2005.
The book is told from the first-person point of view of Frank McCourt.
Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan are two emigrates from Ireland who meet, get married, and begin having kids–from oldest to youngest, Frank (narrator), Malachy jr., twins Eugene and Oliver, and Margaret. The family lives in Brooklyn in a filthy, run-down, small tenement apartment; they live in extreme poverty as the Great Depression has just hit, and the weekly wages that Malachy makes he spends entirely at the bar to fuel his vicious alcoholism. The children often go without food, mostly surviving on sugar water and bread. Occasionally kind neighbors give food to the children. When baby Margaret suddenly dies, Angela and Malachy sr. sink into a depression, and by the advice of Angela’s relatives, they move back in with Angela’s parents in the small town of Limerick, Ireland. Angela is pregnant when they move.
In Limerick, conditions are even worse. The family lives in one room in Angela’s mother’s house, who is very reluctant about taking them in. Malachy sr. struggles to find work as there are barely any jobs, certainly no jobs for a Northern Irish/American man. The family is forced to rely on a weekly unemployment benefit provided by a local Catholic church organization, which Malachy sr. often collects but almost always spends entirely at the pubs. Angela has a miscarriage, and shortly after, her son Oliver dies presumably of scarlet fever. Then, his twin brother Eugene also dies of pneumonia. Distraught and depressed, Angela and Malachy sr. move the remaining family into a slum house with unbearable conditions. Frank begins school and Angela gives birth to another boy Michael and then another Alphie. Frank is often bullied by his peers for his American accent, physically disciplined by his teachers, and ridiculed for his heritage and his lower-class status by damn near everyone. Then he contracts typhoid fever and is hospitalized for many months, and then again with a case of severe conjunctivitis in both eyes. Malachy sr. leaves to work in a defense plant in England, and then completely abandons the family, forcing them to move in with Angela’s cruel cousin Laman. Frank gets a job as a telegram boy, and later writes threatening letters for a local moneylender, all the while helping support his siblings and saving up enough money to make passage to the U.S. When the moneylender dies, Frank throws her ledger into the nearby river, thereby liberating all those in debt.
The book ends with Frank, age nineteen now, boarding a ship to the U.S. and landing in New York, the place of his birth.
[PSA: Not only did I leave A LOT out in this summary, but I condensed some of the hardest, most difficult, and complex events into mere fragments, something I feel uneasy about. Do NOT let this summary suffice for anything even remotely close to the actual text.]
First and foremost, Angela’s Ashes is up there as one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. And while reading, very frequently I had to remind myself that it is all true. That these horrible events and circumstances actually happened propelled the text into a strikingly moving light that cut me down to the core and tortured my heart with a disturbing and veracious force. But that force of truth would not have had the incredible effect on me that it did if not for McCourt’s undeniably virtuosic talent for writing.
McCourt’s prose is tantamount to the greats. He paints Irish dialect and streams of consciousness with the likeness of Joyce, constructs lines with the curtness and longevity of Hemingway, punctuates with techniques reminiscent of McCarthy, and philosophizes within the tangential musings à la Knausgaard.
The way that the book is written, the words transport the reader into the eyes and mind of a child. The description is detailed but only within the confines that a child’s perspective limits. Circumstances, especially death, aren’t fully explained, associations and definitions are made with an undeveloped and flawed reasoning, word comprehension is incomplete, etc. All throughout the novel is an undercurrent of frustration as little Frank is constantly confronted by things that are simply too adult or over his head for him to fully understand–especially poverty, discrimination, and religion. We see very lucidly just how his mind churns and strains in a meager attempt to make sense of his surroundings, and we watch as he slowly strengthens his grasp of the bleak and complicated world in which he lives.
Furthermore, the prosaic formatting and structure of the text reflect the inner dialogue of a child. How children, quickly picking up a language, often speak in long streams of run-ons: “and then this happened, and then that, and then this, and then that” [very reminiscent of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where in the first few sections, the prose reflects the age of the narrator]. It’s truly an ingenious layer that widens the scope of this pervasive child-like atmosphere that transform throughout the duration of the memoir.
But what I think may be the greatest accomplishment of all is how McCourt manages to capture the essence of being kid even against a backdrop of horror and misery. Besides overwhelming poverty, Frank also faces many other unfortunate aspects of life in Ireland: discrimination and classicism, xenophobia, familial feuds, civil unrest and political divisiveness, religious oppression, injury and disease, love and loss, homelessness and abandonment, and worst, the complete inability to escape from it all. But despite the literal hundreds of atrocities that little Frank faces, unbelievably, he still finds moments of happiness–a small triumph, a compliment, a laugh amongst friends, a neighbor’s kindness, etc. There are very real moments where we get to see little Frank simply being a kid, a hopeful kid, which, in a world of only pain and misery, is a seemingly impossible feat. It is within these tiny glimpses that Frank (and therefore also the reader) is momentarily relieved of his miserable existence, and for a second, remembers to be a kid.
For me, those little moments were the most moving of all.
All the while through reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder just how it was to write it. McCourt, in every single page, exhumes such horrific memories, it must have been an enormous endeavor just to simply write. But in a way, I also wonder if it was a cathartic experience, as if to write these harrowing memories somehow may have relieved him of a burden he carried his entire life.
Nonetheless, I truly enjoyed reading this book as seldom does a book move me in the way that this one did. Memoirs, auto-fiction, roman à clefs, anything that blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction will always be my favorite kind of book to read.