Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

You can easily tell from the first page that this is not going to be a feel-good read. The real tragedy behind it all is that it’s a true story; a memoir of, in the author’s own words, a “miserable Irish-Catholic childhood.” Frank McCourt narrates in a tone alternating between cynical, dryly humorous and childishly naïve, providing insight into both his adult and child selves, and in doing so paints a vivid portrait of lost innocence and struggles with poverty and addiction.

The story takes place during the 1930s and 40s in Limerick City, Ireland, where the McCourt family moved from Brooklyn, New York, when Frank was young. The title, Angela’s Ashes, refers to McCourt’s mother, Angela, who is essentially a single parent to McCourt and his brothers due to their father’s alcoholism. The family lives in poverty and is unaided by either side of the extended family, both of whom disapprove of the marriage and are determined to let them suffer. While her husband spends what little money they have on trips to the pub, Angela struggles to provide for her family, living in fear of where their next meal is coming from, even resorting to stealing food and begging at the local church for new clothes.

The novel chronicles McCourt’s upbringing from his birth to the age of nineteen. From a young age, he is sent on missions to retrieve his drunken father from the pub, and at fourteen, begins to work various jobs to support his family, eventually quitting school. Catholicism plays a large part in his upbringing, as he is constantly browbeaten by fundamentalist ideology that brainwashes him into a state of fear. An amusing turning point in the book is his discovery of masturbation, for which he is convinced God will punish him with an eternity in hell. However, at this point, he is beyond caring, and he experiences the thrill of rebellion as he revels in this state of sin.

Such instances of humor help move the story along so it’s more than just a plodding ballad of a downtrodden family. The subplots involving McCourt’s adolescent milestones are often handled comically, almost in a self-deprecating manner, as though to satirize the innocence—or foolishness—of youth in the days before disillusionment.

However, what also keeps the pages turning is McCourt’s literary voice, both gritty and poetic, bleak but somehow beautiful. There’s a lyrical quality to it, a subtle but deeply-felt rhythm. McCourt knows how to appeal to his readers’ emotions without resorting to sentimentality. In fact, the young McCourt’s lack of self-pity and his precocious ambition for a better life is more likely to tug at heartstrings than the one-dimensional Oliver Twist pleading for more gruel.

Personally, what kept me turning the page was the hope for a happy ending, and lo and behold, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s not the only thing that makes Angela’s Ashes a worthwhile read. In addition to tragedy and despair, there is hope, humor, and an overriding humanity in the struggle for survival, and one might even call it inspirational—though you certainly won’t find it in the “Self Help” aisle at your local Barnes and Noble. In its own way, Angela’s Ashes is a beautiful book. Just have a box of tissues handy.


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