By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #7 – Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Poverty, misery, alcoholism, death, on repeat like a broken record. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt must be one of the most depressing books I've ever read. But it also made me laugh out loud at times. How? Read on!

“For never was a story of more woe…”

I hope Shakespeare will forgive me for stealing his lines. If not, he most definitely would if I told him they refer to the book Angela’s Ashes, a memoirby Frank McCourt, in which he narrates his abominable Irish catholic childhood. Romeo and Juliet’s struggles were nothing compared to his – really. Could that be possible? Read on if you don’t believe me.

Imagine having a bad childhood. Not just bad, but terrible, one that would still bring tears to your eyes when thinking of it. Got it? Well, multiply it by ten, add an alcoholic father, death famine, crippling poverty, poor hygiene, death, prejudice, a strict catholic upbringing, death, and life-threatening disease to it. Bad, huh? ‘Tis.

Frank McCourt is born in New York, where his family is poor and his father spends every single penny he has at the pub. After the death of his youngest sister, they move to Ireland, and that’s where things really start taking a turn for the worse. Penniless, and this time without food for long periods of time, his father still can’t keep his hands off the booze. Time passes, and so do many miserable moments, each worse than the one preceding it. One couldn’t make it up, is what I kept thinking.*  

I can’t abide pure, unadulterated misery. I hate the kind of look-at-me-pity-me-cry-for-me wallowing tone some books have, and instead of sympathising with the main character, I start despising them and think they get their just deserts. This book could easily have been that; a simple, barely readable tear jerker, were it not for the uninterrupted stream of black, dry humour McCourt applies to it, written in the local vernacular. Whether you call it the Irish way of coping with life’s difficulties, or the naïve way a child sees the world, it works. It is done in such a hilarious way that some part of you actually hopes for yet another traumatic event because it makes for such good reading. You’re never disappointed for long…

Is there nothing that gives even the slightest glimmer of hope in young Frank’s life? Fortunately, there is. For someone who has not a single thing to call his own, his only possessions are the stories he hears. First, it’s his father’s stories about Irish heroes, then it’s the stories his friends make up. But the stories that truly shape him are the plays by William Shakespeare. The Bard’s words lift him up from his own miserable life, and provide a temporary refuge into a world that’s completely different from his own. And so ’tis that these stories inspire him to start a new life, and, years later, to write it his own story down.

(Told you I was confident Shakespeare would forgive me for using his words, didn’t I?)

So, have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments, and follow me for more book musings!

*Side note: McCourt has been criticised for making up some aspects of his story. What do think – should a memoir be the truth and nothing but the truth, or is a writer allowed some artistic license?

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