To take up this Pulitzer prize-winning book that has consistently sold in the millions, and appear to take it apart, may seem like an act of iconoclasm. I shall therefore begin by saying that it is one very enjoyable read.
The quote on the back neatly summarizes the contents: `When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive 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'. You can see why this quote was chosen over any other to sell the book, it combines the comfortable certainty of publishers with another abused child story on the desk, with the human reaction, `I bet it wasn't really as bad as all that.. was it?'
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.
To begin to relate the dozens of novels and biographies where I could make a similar case would be pointless, but here are a few that come to mind, regardless. 'David Copperfield' by Charles Dickens (or indeed, many of of his myriad characters), 'Moll Flanders' by Daniel Defoe, 'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and closer to home, 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' by James Joyce.
The poor, sentimental childhood industry is certainly alive and well in the hands of Frank McCourt. Ireland has long provided a rich mother lode for writers and artists, perhaps because of the horrific famine, subsequent Irish diaspora and civil war, who nowadays help fund the in-exhaustive market, and of course, there is the `perfidious' English across the Irish Sea. As long as we buy the myth, the myth becomes history.
As if this wasn't enough, the book contains as many human cliches, 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.
All in all, a number of issues begin to surface. For most people, memories of childhood inevitably appear through the prism of later experience, not to say the experience of reading about the childhoods of others. As many a professional would admit, `don't let an inconvenient fact get in the way of a good story', but when does fact give way to fiction? At what point does a novel legitimately sell as a memoir? Do we appear to prefer it that way?
on 18 January 2010
Angela's Ashes is a poignant and funny memoir of the author's poverty-stricken childhood in Limerick, as told to us through his younger self.
There was a lot that I liked about this book. I liked that we saw his story with a child's viewpoint; it added humour to a desperately sad tale. I liked that the narrator seemed to grow up throughout (as he would have done in life) and that gave it a much needed authenticity. I also really liked the moments of innocence, for example when he is confronted with death for the first time. The characters are well drawn and believable, and the situations authentic. Both my parents have given similar accounts of their childhoods, so reading this did give me a valuable personal insight. I think the Irish connection probably made me get more from this than I would have otherwise though.
It is repetitive in many ways, but that is Frankie's story; every day he faced hunger, poverty, and alcoholism, and every day was much like the one before. I very much felt for Frankie and his lost childhood and was moved many times.
I would recommend this, mostly to people who enjoy memoirs, true stories, and difficult childhood stories. It is written in a style anyone can enjoy though, and there is very little Irish slang so most will have no problems understanding it.
on 6 April 2008
Somewhere on this page Amazon is telling you that people who bought this book also bought 'Tis' and 'Teacher Man'. You may as well do it now as the postage will be cheaper and you'll end up buying the other two anyway once you've read Angela's Ashes.
Angela's Ashes was McCourt's first book, introducing us to his impoverished upbringing in the States and rural Ireland. Sickening at times and upsetting, this true story will also make you laugh at loud. McCourt's natural (Irish) wit and colourful language make even the bleakest parts worth the read.
Being autobiographical (like 'tis' and 'teacher man') you get a real sense of the man and how he carried his upbringing with him throughout his life. A natural writer and a person of no small integrity he is handicapped by his own low self worth. Now that he's a successful published author I hope he still has his feet on the ground and his head in the clouds.
I've not seen the film but will do so, it'll have to be good to live up to this book.