Book review: Angela's Ashes

Posted by Bel. The time is 1.07pm here in Wellington, NZ.

My husband comes from Irish stock, as he likes to remind us all, any time any particular (drunken) behaviour needs explaining away.

So it was no surprise to find a copy of Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize winner on my mother-in-law's shelf, along with two copies of the follow-up Tis, and then the book he wrote about his career in the classroom, Teacher Man, and even the memoir written by his younger brother.

The tone of the book is immediate - deadpan, detailed, colloquial and charming. The dialect is obvious from the onset, ringing out from the page, poetic in the way that the Irish voice has, even when describing the least salubrious of situations.

Now, what with the book being a international bestseller and the film adaptation starring world class actors, I probably don't need to go over the plot with you. But if you haven't actually read the book, and you do come across a copy, I would suggest you give it a go.

The writing is superb and worth immersing yourself in solely for the experience is seeing a world with a child's eyes - as the narrative of Angela's Ashes is deftly told from this perspective. Not in a cloying way, but with traits that remind you of that age when so much of the adult world went over your head and you were happier for it.

Another comment on the tone. I found this book really, really funny. I took it to be a black comedy, with the tragic elements presented in such a way that there was a comedic spin on it all. Like, of course it was awful that he got a thump on the head each time he asked an awkward question, but it was still pretty funny that he kept asking awkward questions in the way that annoying wee boys do and that his parents would just thump him on the head each time he did.

The devasting alcoholism of his father, Malachy Snr, is even given a comedic spin. His relentless booze-fuelled desire to drag his sons out of bed in the middle of the night, dragging them upright to swear to defend Ireland to the death whilst panting whisky-laden breath all over them, becomes an almost affectionate tribute to the patriotic spirit of the Irish - though of course mutilated by Malachy's inability to be a father in any sense of the word.

To me, the passages which diverted most from truly evoking the time and place of McCourt's childhood, were those which retold the time which seemed to have the biggest impact. When he discovers the writing of Shakespeare, Noyes and Swift, a significant turning point in both the book and his young life, a more contemporary voice rings through - a writer still enthralled with these heroes and with literature, whose love of words help transcend the horrors of his origins.

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Recommended.
Published in 1996. Set mostly in the poorest, grossest slums of Ireland, 1930s/40s.
#48 from 'The List'

4 thoughts on “Book review: Angela's Ashes”

  1. Very well said :)

    Though I reckon we need a new term to describe this form of comedy - technically it's not really black comedy as it's not taboo/ "naughty" subject matter... And as you say via email has absurdest elements... It also seems so specific to downtrodden peoples, particularly of Celtic origin... It's like a different version of self-deprecation that undercuts seriousness rather than ability... I really feel like there is the potential for a magnificent new slang word to join our lexicon...

    Wait, what does Wiki say about this...


    But as a random aside, it does mention that 10 times more Irish people live in the USA than in Ireland itself!

    PS You've reminded me I need to read Teacher Man. A Monk Swimming (geddit?), his brother's book, is also an interesting contrast as from memory he has the destructive bent and ego of their dad so it is quite a contrast to Frank's writing. But nowhere near as good.

  2. ooooh, your blog's gone all flash ow... :D

    Looks great guys. Angie's Ashes was one of those books I had to read a couple of times, but I agree there is definitely scope for a new word to cover it's brand of comedy.

    Poor Malachy, he really did seem lost even from Frank's narration of him as a wee kid.

    Hope all is going well for you both? *Hugs*

  3. I was extremely fortunate to take Frank McCourt's memoir writing workshop at the Southampton Writers Conference in 2007, an experience I'll always treasure and never forget. I've read all of his books, but I've also listened to them on audio CD. Listening to Angela's Ashes is a laugh riot. It's difficult to explain to those who haven't read it, how deeply funny it is, despite the horror he was living.
    When I told him how much I enjoy listening to Angela's Ashes on CD (I loved it so much after borrowing it from the library, I had to buy my own copy. Frank signed it for me! He said they didn't want him to do the reading, but he won out. Thank God. I couldn't imagine anyone else reading it.
    Frank is so very missed, but for generations to come, he lives on through his memoirs.
    Thanks for a wonderful post.

  4. Kathleen - thank you for your comment & for sharing your memories. How amazing!

    It did occur to me, whilst reading the book, that it would make a fantastic audio-book. Perhaps an actor like Liam Neeson or even Colin Farrell would have the brogue for it... But yes the author himself is perfect. Your autographed copy is a prize indeed!