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Angela's Ashes Paperback – 1999
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In 2016 Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes will be 20 years old, but it is still as fresh as it was when first published. After retiring from teaching in America McCourt began sorting his memoirs of childhood poverty in Limerick in the early Twentieth Century. The book, which he never expected to sell more than a few hundred copies took him a little over a year to complete. It won the Pulitzer Prize and a cascade of other awards. It topped bestseller charts for more than two years. Only Charles Dickens has managed to capture the general reader’s imagination like McCourt.
Told entirely from the child’s perspective, the narrative succeeds in drawing the reader into a charmed circle of listeners to a tale of poverty and survival against the odds. Frankie was given up for dead in the fever hospital, refused absolution by priests because he cannot abstain from masturbating and hence is not in a fit state to be absolved. He finds an ‘easy’ priest, but the minister falls asleep during his confession.
Throughout the book, the Catholic religion controls the minds of rich amd poor alike, but the rich have other comforts; the poor simply beg and starve and mostly die young. Yet this memoir, which should have been an agonising read, remains buoyant to the end. Frankie’s father is a confirmed alcoholic and mostly absent, leaving his wife Angela to cope with an increasing number of starving infants. Frankie suffers the loss of his siblings but needs to work to keep alive the remnants of his family in a rat-infested, fleahouse that collapses in a flood. He helps unload the farmers’ carts on market days and ‘at the end of the day they’ll give me vegetables they can’t sell , anything crushed, bruised or rotten in parts.’
The boy manages to borrow books from the library, using Angela’s tickets to read about virgin martyrs ‘who always died singing hymns and giving praise not minding one bit if lions tore big chunks from their sides and gobbled them on the spot.’ But when the librarian finds him reading Lin Yütang she is horrified and dismisses him from the library for ever because of the use of one word - ‘turgid.’ ‘I know now what Mikey Molloy was talking about … that we’re no different from the dogs that get stuck into each other in the streets and it’s shocking to think of all the mothers and fathers doing the likes of this.’
Although now starved of books Frankie survives and graduates from being a telegram boy to a deliverer of newspapers and magazines and finally to writing threatening letters for Mrs Finucane, a rich old lady on her last legs who has him saying prayers for her soul. Then, Pennies from Heaven or in Frankie’s case pounds: ‘The Friday night before my nineteenth birthday Mrs Finucane sends me for the sherry. When I return she’s dead in the chair, her eyes wide open. I can’t look at her … but I take the key to the trunk upstairs. I take forty of the hundred pounds in the trunk … and I’ll add this to what I have in the post office and I have enough to go to America.’ He drinks the sherry and throws the ledger containing a record of debts owed by the poor of Limerick into the River Shannon.
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