Angela’s Ashes

by Frank McCourt

Angela’s Ashes is McCourt’s famous memoir describing his staggering poverty growing up in Ireland in the 1930s. While this may at first glance sound similar to something I recently reviewed, I assure you this is a different thing entirely, both with regard to style and focus. McCourt chronicles a life of severe want. His alcoholic father, unable to hold down a job, drinks away the dole money, leaving his wife to more or less fend for herself to find a way to properly feed, clothe, and shelter their children. This leaves the young, skin-and-bones McCourt and his brothers perpetually hungry, each with a just single set of rags to wear––and he shows this to be not at all uncommon in the place at the time.

A major reason I suspect Angela’s Ashes found the success it did is because the author writes with such a clear, stirring voice. He explores the cruel and unforgiving world he describes from a place of sincerely felt childhood innocence. The way young McCourt works to make sense of things often lends the book a great deal of its humour. And the no-nonsense way only a child can talk about tragedy that bombards him with regularity––such as the deaths upon deaths from tuberculosis he experienced far too much from too young an age––treating it as a commonplace occurrence barely requiring a second thought, causes a stronger feeling of sadness to be evoked when reading. Add to that prose that employs a vocal Irish accent without becoming an impediment to understanding, pieces of Irish and Catholic lore weaving into the story, and the humanity of characters coming across in the way the author presents them, and everything is imbued with a strong vibrancy. What results is a book that feels real, and one that makes you feel something in the process.

Though I believe what I wrote in the last paragraph, something doesn’t sit well with me with regard to McCourt’s memoir. I think it has to do with someone suggesting to me shortly before reading that the author took many creative liberties with something marketed as non-fiction. From parallel reading after finishing it, I wouldn’t suggest this is convincing––certainly far less convincing than what I can find with something like Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf––but I think this idea sort of burrowed into the back of my mind and caused a ball of skepticism to stew. Add to this the fact that I revisited one of my favourites, Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, immediately beforehand, that I saw many, significant parallels between the two, and the ball grew at least a little. This is at least the most reasonable idea I’ve been able to reach to explain that something I arguably should have loved, an objectively well-written memoir dealing with a subject I’m interested in, I instead only liked.