Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for many years. Since my local library was closed for several weeks for renovations, I thought it was as good a time as any to finally read it. Actually, I attempted to read Philip Roth's I Married a Communist which has also been sitting unread on my bookshelf. There's a reason for that--it's completely unreadable. Angela's Ashes, on the other hand, was completely compelling.

As Frank McCourt recounts his childhood in this memoir, he starts off saying,

"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."

He goes on to paint a picture of abject poverty that is so dismal and abysmal, it makes a Dickens novel look like a charming little fairy tale. But the portrait of unrelenting hardship is tempered with a great deal of humor and compassion. McCourt's father was both a charming storyteller and a shiftless alcoholic who abandoned his wife and child. McCourt relays the realities of his father's disease, but also astute enough to grant him some absolution as he writes:
"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 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."
Initially I thought this book would be about his mother, the Angela of the title. Angela, however, is far from the saintly martyr implied by the title--she suffers the burden of poverty, of a resolutely itinerant husband, the deaths of three of her children--but suffering is all she seems to do. The four remaining children--Frank, Malachy, Michael and Alphonsus--practically raise and fend for themselves.

The book offers an acerbic look at faith and the Catholic church with a young Francis mesmerized by lurid tales of Saints or being disowned by his Grandmother because he got sick after his first Communion and threw up the body of Jesus in her backyard. But again he supplies a more sympathetic view as in this passage where he's confessing to having stolen a drunkard's dinner:
"Why my child?
I was hungry, Father.
And why were you hungry?
There was nothing in my belly, Father.
He says nothing and even though it's dark I know he's shaking his head. My dear child, why can't you go home and ask your mother for something?
Because she sent me out looking for my father in the pubs, Father, and I couldn't find him and she hasn't a scrap in the house because he's drinking the five pounds Grandpa sent from the North for the new baby and she's raging by the fire because I can't find my father.
I wonder if this priest is asleep because he's very quiet till he says, My child, I sit here. I hear the sins of the poor. I assign the penance. I bestow absolution. I should be on my knees washing their feet. Do you understand me, my child?
I tell him I do but I don't.
Go home, child. Pray for me.
No penance, Father?
No, my child.
I stole the fish and chips. I'm doomed.
You're forgiven. Go. Pray for me."
The book is full of colorful characters and anecdotes. Strict schoolmasters, generous neighbors, crotchety relatives--all regaled in McCourt's lyrical voice. I plan to read the sequels, 'Tis and Teacher Man as well as rent the film version. Frank McCourt has a matter of fact style--never indulging in melodrama or wallowing in self-pity--and yet his words are so eloquent you can actually see and hear and feel the lanes of Limerick come alive.


  1. I read that book when I was in DC -- loved it. Beautiful imagery and writing.

    C's finding us weeklong vacations in Mexico and mysterious islands. I've created a monster!

    hope you're well
    - j

  2. I don't know that I'd call the imagery "beautiful"--haunting, evocative, bleak maybe. The writing, however, was beautiful. Very authentic and affecting.

    Take your camera, bring back pictures!