Review: Memoir

Book Review: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

I attended the 2017 San Francisco Writer’s Conference in February, and kept on hearing praise of Angela’s Ashes. I vaguely remembered the title as something my mother used to own. I remembered it being a large-ish book that would throw off my attempts to alphabetize the biography section of my parents’ home “library”. Later, on seeing the cover, I realized that it was a book my mother had once tried to convince me to read. I didn’t read it.

It took me a few attempts this time, too. I am not knowledgeable of Ireland or Irish Catholicism, and I have no Irish accent available in my head. As such, it made certain parts of this book difficult to follow. For instance, on seeing a noun spelled “eejit,” I would have to take a moment to pronounce it in my head several times before it would strike me that it was “idiot.” I started it once, and read to about page 70 with some difficulty. It was touching, but the effort required for me to understand the words on the page made me less inclined to keep turning the page.

I put it aside and read some other books. A week later, I came back to the book and decided to restart from the beginning.

Apparently, all I needed was time to process the style. The second time, a mere week later, I had no difficulty at all and was turning the page with a sort of zeal I cannot explain.

This is a painful childhood to read about. The drunkard father, the miserable mother, the many dead siblings. The omnipresent, indifferent church. The mother’s unforgiving family.

Yet McCourt tells it with vividly eloquent language and humor. It was in his description of their house with its cold, flooded Ireland downstairs and tolerably warm Italy upstairs. It was in his description of his First Communion, his grandmother’s frustration when he vomits God in her backyard, and the series of Confessions a young Frank then makes when trying to clarify with the priest how his grandmother should clean her yard afterward.

At some points, McCourt’s descriptions of events in his childhood took me back to my own. When he talks about his uncle lifting his youngest brother onto his lap and joking, “I think I’ll keep this one,” and little Frank and Malachy protest, “No no no that’s our brother,” I remembered that I had an uncle who once made the same joke about one of my little sisters, and I reacted exactly the same way: “No no no that’s my sister!”

It was written with a kind of wry acceptance of all of the tragedy he’s lived through, never dwelling but also never shying away from the grim realities. There was a segment, near the end, where a long period of time (months? Years?) seemed to pass, only described by three brief paragraphs about various tragedies that occurred during that time. I found myself wishing there were more written about that time, strange though that may seem.

It made me wonder about all that the author himself did not see and could not have known. I wonder about the parents’ marriage, more or less forced after a one-night stand, yet apparently both determined to make a life together for over a decade. I wonder about the father’s eventual absence as he seems to fall entirely out of the family and the story. I wonder about the mother, with all of her accusatory family and her begging and her tears, and I wonder what horrors she lived through that Frank was too young to understand. I wonder about the grandmother and her alternating kindness and accusations tossed at her daughter.

This is a book of an unhappy childhood, but it is not a book that made me unhappy. In fact, I felt quite exhilarated at the end. The heart of this entire book lies in McCourt’s voice and his words and his humor. I am grateful to have been granted the opportunity to read this memoir.

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