Book Review: Angela’s Ashes

Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

Considering that I am the appreciative reader of more than my fair share of memoirs of difficult childhoods and adolescence [1], I wonder often what separates a book like this that wins the Pulitzer Prize from other similar memoirs that are published by appreciative publishers and still others that are self-published. What separates this book from its peers in a very crowded market that would make it critically praised is a certain disdain for organized religion, a very polished literary style, a focus on showing rather than telling how hard life was for him (more on this in a little bit), along with a certain crudity in dealing with language as well as questions of the author’s furtive teenage sexuality as well as the depravity that was going on around him.

The author states at the outset of his book that there are few childhoods that are as rough as a bad Irish childhood, and this book is a deeply grim tale that is told vividly and colorfully about many ways a childhood can go wrong, when you have a lot of siblings that die because of poverty-related problems, when your father is a bit of an outcast as a Northern Irish man living mostly in Southern Ireland, even if he was not a hopeless drunk who let his family nearly starve because of his love of the bottle and where your mother begs and even sleeps around to survive and is basically helpless because of deep psychological problems related to her own childhood problems. When you have a divided family, a childhood of extreme privation that involved petty theft on a frequent scale and the constant shame of begging and grinding poverty, when the desire for education as a way of advancement is frustrated by class concerns and monetary concerns. This book, like many others, is made more bearable by the fact that we know the author was a success in leaving the morbid depression of his parents’ homeland and moving back to the United States, as knowing the ending makes the heartbreaking material of this book somewhat more manageable.

There are a lot of elements in this story I can relate to, a bit painfully, although in some ways this author had a more difficult childhood than mine (and that is no easy task!). The author talks about his fondness for poetry and Shakespeare learned from early shy flirtations and furtive relationships with doomed girls. If one does not know that the author himself had three marriages before his death, one would be hard-pressed to see in the childhood and family background of the author as providing any sort of experience in faithfulness and uxorious devotion. It is not necessary to believe that every single story in here is entirely accurate–it is understandable that family members would not necessarily want to be remembered the way they are recounted here, and that a storyteller as creative and compelling as McCourt would exaggerate the squalor of his youth a little. Nevertheless, the truth must have been bad enough, and told well enough to make this memoir well worth reading whether one can relate to the victim mentality and massive hypocrisy of the Ireland symbolized here or not.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Angela’s Ashes

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