Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)

Angela's Ashes bookA boy growing up in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, starving, freezing and surrounded by the people real families are made of. In a time when memoirs became the finest expressions of high literary art, “Angela’s Ashes” ascended with alacrity to become the most exalted of them. The author paints a watercolour of bleak, smog filled, rainy streets so vivid that I sense the mist rising off the River Shannon and hitting me in the face.

McCourt triumphs because he writes with the voice of a child, presenting his child-self in such a way that makes the voice credible, that justifies his actions. It begins with his life until he is four in New York during the Great Depression, and then the family’s return to the greater depression of their homeland, Ireland, where they live on a tiny government dole, and the charity of begrudging relatives. The story wrenches you from laughter to shivers of hunger (you feel persistently hungry reading this book) to a moistening of the eyes. The ‘Disease of the Irish’ plays a substantial part in this book, how it affects families, how the culture impelled its boys to embrace the bottle of stout, the evening pint.

McCourt engages too with the notions of the Irish state, the politics of liberty from the British, and how the class structure of Ireland, with its correlates of Catholicism and Protestantism, abutted working class sensibilities. In one respect the success of the book is formulaic, the genuine pleasure we gain from a story where the main character overcomes the trials and tribulations of life to emerge from the chrysalis mature, reflective, but above all, relatively unscathed. Since all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, know by personal experience that life simply is not so cut and dried. We enjoy the myth, but remain mildly unconvinced.

Ireland has long provided a rich mother lode for writers and artists, perhaps because of the horrific famine, subsequent Irish diaspora and civil war,  and of course, there is the `perfidious’ English across the Irish Sea. The whole saga can be a broken record for some. As if this wasn’t enough, the book contains as many human clichés: the poverty-struck alcoholic father, the pious, nagging depressed mother, the predatory cousin/lodger, the harsh priests, the bullying schoolmaster, and the kind supportive neighbours. Always pervasive is the grinding poverty, the oppressive and guilt inducing all – pervading presence of the Catholic Church and education system. Not to mention the fierce patriotism and resentment in one time period during the 800 years of English domination and cruelty.

I had to frequently remind myself that the years described were endured not in some Victorian-era slum, but the 1930s/40s. You can actually see it, touch it, smell it. This poor small lad, who had to feed his younger siblings when their mother was depressed, did so without thinking it odd. I wish there hadn’t been so much about sex and masturbation in the latter part of the book, it’s quite upsetting. I don’t recommend eating while reading this either. His descriptions of the squalor they lived in are intense! I felt the wet and cold, the terrible loss of children, the horror of bed bugs and the stinking lavatory shared by everyone in the street. But I loved the way he told it…and was grateful I didn’t have to go through it.



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