“I am for who I was in the beginning but now is present and I exist in the future.”-Frank McCourt
I’m not sure where to begin with this book so I guess I’ll start by saying, next to The Gulag Archipelago, this is the second saddest book that I’ve ever read.
Angela’s Ashes is a memoir by Frank McCourt on his life growing up poor in Limerick, Ireland. This book has been turned into a popular movie and has also won a Pulitzer prize. Not being one to watch movies, I’ve never seen the adaptation and to be honest, went into this venture a little blind. This was a tough read, and the length of time that it took me to finish it is testament to that. This was one of those books that you will likely need to put down for some time and leave to go find something more cheerful.
The story actually starts in America, where Frank is born to his Mother, Angela, and his father, Malachy. He also had a younger brother, named Malachy after his father, younger twin brothers and a sister, who passed before they moved back to Ireland. The book opens with:
“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.”
This opening quote is probably the best summation that he can give for the remainder of the book, because every page after this is a really great tale of what it must have been like to grow up poor in south Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. The things that Frank was witness to, was taught, and that he experienced were things that many of us couldn’t imagine now.
By the time he was 10 he had lost his sister Margaret, and his two younger twin brothers. If this was the ONLY thing that he had to suffer through, that would still be considered a major trauma in someone’s life. He also had to suffer through an alcoholic father, who would drink all of what little money they had away in the pub while his family starved, and eventually moved to England during the war to work in a factory. In the end, abandoning his mother and siblings all together. Not to mention surviving typhoid fever. He also grew up in the Irish Catholic religion that in itself is known to do a great deal of damage to children.
The book itself is written in a fashion that more closely resembles how someone would reminisce on their life to an old friend or a significant other than an actual biography. It took some time to get used to but towards the end, it felt like I was simply sitting and listening to someone talk about their life over a cup of coffee. It felt like I was listening to a friend.
While the subject matter can be tough to digest in parts, this book is definitely worth a read through. It’s beautifully written and flows very well. It gives you a great account of what it would have been like to grow up in a depression era Irish town and what the world for many people would have consisted of.