Book Review: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Madeline Polkinghorn, age 17

There are certain books that conjure up a world in which the reader becomes so invested the final page feels like a tearful goodbye. Frank McCourt’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” is one of those extraordinarily rare instances of literature.

Born in New York but raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, McCourt lived a childhood of near constant hunger, disease and unimaginably abject poverty. The desperate financial and political condition of post-Civil War, early 20th-century Ireland serves as the story’s main cultural backdrop. Malachy Sr., the McCourts’ father and a barely functioning alcoholic cursed with a Northern Irish accent, would often spend the entirety of the family’s welfare checks at local pubs. This left Angela, the family’s matriarch, to fend for herself; resorting to charity organizations and outright begging to support her children.

Thematically, “Angela’s Ashes” tackles vast ideas like religion and poverty with a sense of immense ease and, in some cases, profound hope. The reader gets to witness a vivid, gradual chronicle of McCourt’s religious evolution and relationship with the Catholic Church, which serves as a metaphor for McCourt’s ultimate coming-of-age and progression into maturity. The Church, an entity initially idolized by McCourt, ultimately serves to be a disappointing institution of exclusivity and disappointment. The starving McCourt family is frequently turned away by the Jesuits, who live in luxury and comfort despite their ostensible spiritual glorification of poverty. At one particularly heartbreaking moment, wherein McCourt is literally shoved out of the door by a brother, Angela proclaims to her son that he is to “never let anybody slam the door in your face again.”

This idea of Frank resisting the limitations and prejudices that surrounded his impoverished upbringing is traced throughout the memoir by slowly accounting McCourt’s endlessly painful road to immigrating to America. McCourt reiterates the importance of education and intellectual fulfillment regardless of one’s circumstances, remarking that “you might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”

The mastery in “Angela’s Ashes” lies in McCourt’s ability to make the tragic comedic, the unrelatable accessible. Without this, the story would lose its ingenious complexity of emotion and read like a series of obituaries; unmitigatedly depressing and impossible to comfortably digest.

Instead, McCourt manages to adroitly counteract the inexplicably miserable condition of his life with wit and approachable candor. This wit is not forced; McCourt never denies the heartbreaking nature of his childhood. It is seamlessly and subtly weaved throughout the fabric of the story, transcending the rigid barriers of genre. It is neither tragedy nor comedy, nor even tragicomedy; it simply is. This brilliant, jolly rendition of sadness is perhaps illustrative of the perpetual, historical condition of the Irish: downtrodden, hopeless, and dejected, but always to tell a joke and share a pint.