book review

Review: “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt

McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir 
Scribner, 1996
Paperback, 364 pages
ISBN 0-684-87435-0

Highly Recommended

Frank McCourt’s memoir about his childhood well deserves all the accolades that have been heaped upon it.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived 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 . . . nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcohol father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years. 

(p. 11)

What amazes me is that, although McCourt admits up front that his childhood was miserable, misery is not at all what the book communicates. Angela’s Ashes is driven by the narrative voice that the current McCourt is able to create for the young Frank as he matures from the age of five to young manhood. The narrator tells us about the hard facts of his life, but always in the child’s voice of wonder, fascination, and discovery: “The Limerick moon was so bright I could see bits of it shimmering in the water and I wanted to scoop up moon bits but how could I with the fleas leaping on my legs” (p. 60). There are also liberal doses of the humor derived from a child narrator who is less sophisticated than his creator and the reader:

Dad says I’ll understand when I grow up. He tells me that all the time now and I want to be big like him so that I can understand everything. It must be lovely to wake up in the morning and understand everything. I wish I could be like all the big people in the church, standing and kneeling and praying and understanding everything. 

(p. 108)

And vignettes such as going upstairs to Italy and the Angel on the Seventh Stair lend poignancy to the story of this family’s life.

I’ve heard many people say that they don’t like Angela’s Ashes because it’s too depressing. But those people are writing their own book; they’re not reading McCourt’s. Yes, the grinding poverty is oppressive. Yes, the father who can’t stay away from the pub and can’t avoid drinking up all his salary or dole money is despicable and infuriating. But the young Frank makes his own peace with the reality of his life:

I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.

(p. 210)

Despite his hunger and poverty, this narrator is never depressed or embittered. Creating and sustaining a realistic, engaging first-person narrator is a monumental task, yet Frank McCourt has made that task look effortless.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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