"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version..."
Frank McCourt has been accused of writing the first 'misery memoir' with Angela's Ashes, spawning a whole industry in this genre. However, desperately miserable though his story is, his sense of humour, wonderful turn of phrase and visual imagination make this memoir something very special – and often very funny.
The story is told from the young Frank's point of view, from the age of four through adolescence to early adulthood. Speaking with the mind and the developing perceptions of a child, McCourt paints a convincing picture of poverty and suffering, inhabited by some very colourful characters, without bitterness or self-pity. The adult Frank never judges or analyses his younger self. He just observes.
Written in the present tense, experiences, descriptions and feelings flow straight from the young Frank in a 'stream of consciousness'. As he grows older and understands more, he becomes angrier – at his father and mother, their poverty, the Church. Perhaps McCourt needed to wait for 40 years to write a memoir with such forgiveness.
There is much to forgive. First, his alcoholic father, a charming waster who drank his wages and left his family in such dire need. But he also gave Frank a great love of story-telling with his tales of Irish heroes and rebels, the Angel on the Seventh Step and made-up stories about their neighbours in the Lanes.
Malachy is condemned by Angela's family from the start, not only for his behaviour but because he has a North of Ireland accent and is a Presbyterian with "an odd manner" and a "sneaky little Presbyterian smile". Religious and class prejudice run through the book, with particular reference to the outsider, Malachy, and to the 'doomed' Protestants for whom there is no salvation.
Angela struggles with depression as she tries to deal with the deaths of three of her seven children, her useless husband and the shame of poverty. With one or two exceptions, the Church does not offer much comfort. Parishioners are controlled through fear of eternal damnation, shame and humiliation. The Church "slams the door" in Frank's face, denying him the opportunity of being an altar boy because he is poor, even though his father has taught him the Latin he would need. As Angela remarks, "'Tis hard to hold on to the Faith with the snobbery that's in it."
The Church controls Frank's education too. Despite recommendation from Leamys School that he should continue to secondary school and not "fall into the messenger boy trap," the headmaster of the Christian Brothers School takes one look at him and his mother and says there is no room for him. Like the Jesuits, they are "very particular. They don't like poor people."
There is little compassion anywhere in this world. The Dispensary, where destitute families go for medical treatment, is "worse than begging on the streets". The men that decide who will qualify for treatment humiliate the patients, laughing at their ailments in front of the long queue.
Sometimes, the piling up of misery upon misery and the deliberate cruelty towards the destitute become too much, and we are taken to a dark place with no light. Usually, however, McCourt's sure comedic touch and the young Frank's resilience and humour make it bearable. Before long we can laugh with him again.
Frank's escape is in his imagination – reading, films, and daydreaming about a future back in America, "where no one has bad teeth, people leave food on their plates, every family has a lavatory, and everyone lives happy ever after." Finally, and on a note of optimism, he gets there.
New York Times: "The reader of this stunning memoir can only hope that Mr. McCourt will set down the story of his subsequent adventures in America in another book. ''Angela's Ashes'' is so good it deserves a sequel.
Washington Post: "This memoir is an instant classic of the genre - all the more remarkable for being the 66-year-old McCourt's first book."
The Irish Times: "... he was first and foremost a storyteller who could hold and transport his legions of devotees. With his intense love of language, he had what was once described as “the perfect Irish brogue: lyrical but penetrable."
The Independent: "All that Frank needed to create a memorable memoir was the right "voice" – and eventually he found it in the perfectly pitched voice of a child."
Thomas Keneally: "the brilliant and seductive book will not let you rest until Frank emerges, more or less reared, at the close of boyhood."
Thomas Cahill: "You will be made happy by some of the most truly marvelous writing you will ever encounter".