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Angela's Ashes



by Frank McCourt

Scribner 1999

reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is a truly awe-inspiring autobiography. Indeed, it is one of the best books I have read this year. It fully deserves the Pulitzer Prize that it won in 1997. McCourt’s own authentic Irish voice narrates the story and takes you on an emotional journey from his poverty-stricken childhood in America and Ireland, through to his early adulthood.

Angela refers to his mother, who was only a teenager when she married his father, Malachy, an alcoholic who could never hold down a job. Frank was born in Brooklyn during the years of depression. When he was four, his father moved the whole family back to Limerick, Ireland. But life was equally bitter in Ireland. His mother had one baby after another, with almost no support from father. Not only did Malachy fail to gain regular employment, but he squandered what little he earned on drinks. He often came home late and in a drunken state. Fortunately, Frank was a bright kid who learnt quickly, and developed a gift for writing. At the age of ten, he developed a nosebleed and dizziness, and was admitted to hospital. He was diagnosed with severe typhoid and was at death’s door. He developed a friendship with Patricia Madigan, a girl in a neighbouring bed with diphtheria, and learnt poetry from her. She died and he survived. After he recovered, he got a job delivering telegrams and writing demand notes. From his meagre earnings he provided the only income to support his entire family, in contrast to his worthless father.

The book is deeply moving and your senses are assaulted by the gritty realism. You can smell the sewer that runs in the middle of the street and the backflow of excrement into their kitchen. You feel sorry for his proud mother who has to beg for a pig’s head for their Christmas dinner. You sympathise with McCourt when his schoolmates mock him for wearing shoes with rubber car tyres, and when he is spurned by the Catholic Church. Your blood rages when his father spends all the family’s money on alcohol, leaving the children with no food to eat, no clothes to wear in the freezing winter. You weep when three of his siblings die of starvation.

Despite the heart-wrenching sadness of such a harsh life, McCourt has the gift to make you roll over laughing as well as to make you cry. It is a beautifully written book, full of vitality and compassion, with incredible detail, and the effect is all the more powerful. And if you have never suffered from poverty or starvation, you must read this book. It will broaden your humanity.