That was the month (of March) that was, and ‘Tis an understatement to say how frustrating it was that reading had to take such a back seat. Have relished following so many stories of everyone’s Irish Reading Month adventures and will know to get a crack at this one ahead of time when the gauntlet is hopefully thrown down again next year. Thanks again, though, to Cathy at 746books and Niall at Raging Fluff for proposing the wonderful Begorrathon… have only just launched myself into it but am really looking forward to plodding on and discovering many more Irish novels, albeit belatedly, over the forthcoming months.
The first read on my arm’s length list was the one everyone has heard about and so many have read and rated so highly. Have still yet to see the film (which many say is not a patch on the book?), but having finally sat down and been swept along by the narrative, I can see what all the fuss is about.
I suppose a guileless infancy with a cotton wool upbringing and nothing undue to write home about would make for a very dull tale, but from the very second paragraph on page one it is clear that this is going to be a no-holes-barred depiction of a traumatic and unforgettable start in the world: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood”.
Survival is the word for it: very early on in the book his newborn sister perishes after just days in the world, then both of his twin brothers successively die at a point in the story where you fear there is little hope for anyone in the family to overcome the obstacles life is throwing at them. Talk about the bare necessities.
The story has had its silver lining: having moved back to New York at the hardened age of 19 for adventures that am keen to read about in the successive books of “’Tis” and “Teacher Man”, Frank McCourt went on to be awarded the Pulitzer the year after this first work was published and became a millionaire during his lifetime as a result of his writings. The story told was not without its controversies – this fascinating obituary suggests that the author took quite some licence in depicting the family’s destitute state and garnered outrage and ill-feeling among those who felt their “city’s reputation was besmirched by stories of the scabby-eyed McCourt children reduced to living on bread dipped in tea and feeding the fire in their damp-sodden home with wooden furnishings and coal picked off the streets”. An uncompassionate and sometimes stony Church comes directly under fire and so do the drinking habits of the feckless father, who is absent throughout most of the book because he’s in the pub on one side of the sea or another.
Frank McCourt talked very candidly about the hardships he and his siblings faced in this short interview where he described being a “connoisseur of poverty”, and this book is a scathing account of privation. Whether the truth has been aggrandised or laced with an inflated version of the reality or not it makes for breathless reading, and the facts of his early circumstances are clearly firmly lodged in fact. The descriptions of their perpetually experiencing hunger and a near obsession with food and where the next meal is coming from are harrowingly portrayed. Never has an egg been more reverently described:
“Did you hear that? Our own egg of a Sunday morning. Oh God, I already had plans for my egg. Tap it around the top, gently crack the shell, lift with a spoon, a dab of butter down into the yolk, salt, take my time, a dip of the spoon, scoop, more salt, more butter, into the mouth, oh, God above, if heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt, and after the egg is there anything in the world lovelier than fresh warm bread and a mug of sweet golden tea?”
Class and the pride attached to problems of long-term unemployment are constant: I wept at Frank’s mother’s plight as the book progressed and at her sometimes desperate attempts at finding even short-term solutions to assuage the next drama likely to beset them. The tale is very much told from young Frank’s vantage point, for he is the boy-turned-man who becomes the father figure for his younger brothers and feels the weight of responsibility almost from the get-go, yet who also determines very early on to do everything in his power to leave for greener pastures at the earliest opportunity.
“Angela’s Ashes” is a profoundly moving read. You live and breathe these children’s daily lives: you can see and hear the leaky floods swirling downstairs that lead the family to need to ‘move abroad’ and decamp to the upstairs floor (“Dad says it’s like going away on our holidays to a warm foreign place like Italy. That’s what we’ll call the upstairs from now on, Italy”), just as you can visualise the fleas jumping and the lice crawling. You can smell their unwashed bodies and you can see their soles flapping as they trail the streets with the wonky wheel of the dilapidated pram clunking as they head back to the Dispensary to plead their case for welfare.
Yet despite it all, right through this book there are moments where you smile and even laugh out loud: the young Frank is irreverent, moving and resilient, and the author’s touch is often very, very funny in the face of imminent disaster.
“The next Saturday there’s no telegram nor the Saturday after nor any Saturday forever. Mam begs again at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and smiles at the Dispensary when Mr. Coffey and Mr. Kane have their bit of a joke about Dad having a tart in Piccadilly. Michael wants to know what a tart is and she tells him it’s something you have with tea”.
Off he has gone to London in search of gainful employment, yet the writing is on the wall even before he sets off:
“In the pubs around the railway station the men are packed in drinking the money the agents gave them for travel food. They’re having the last pint, the last drop of whiskey on Irish soil, For God knows it might be the last we’ll ever have… The women stay outside the pubs talking. Mam tells Mrs Meehan, The first telegram money order I’ll get I’ll be in the shop buying a big breakfast so that we can all have our own egg of a Sunday morning”. Back to those ambrosial eggs…
I loved the parts where Angela would remonstrate with her husband on better days, clearly with affection and sarcasm. Frank’s dad, on the rare occasion when he is there, is full of misplaced good intent and proud concern for the way things could be – except of course he does very little to improve their situation: “Dad says a factory is no place for a woman. Mum says, Sitting on you’re a*se by the fire is no place for a man”. There are also brilliant passages where the lot of men and women is recounted from their different ‘perspectives’ –
“In fine weather men sit outside smoking their cigarettes if they have them, looking at the world and watching us play. Women stand with their arms folded, chatting. They don’t sit because all they do is stay at home, take care of the children, clean the house and cook a bit and the men need the chairs. The men sit because they’re worn out from walking to the Labour Exchange every morning to sign for the dole, discussing the world’s problems and wondering what to do with the rest of the day”.
At the end of the day, I thought it was interesting that McCourt also dedicated this first book to the women in his life in his Acknowledgements : “This is a small hymn to an exaltation of women… I am blessed among men”. He went on to marry three times, but does not, however, specifically mention his mother in these words, and I read in The Telegraph (so it must be true) that she categorically denied the veracity of “Angela’s Ashes” before her own death. I had mistakenly thought the title referred to her ashes at the time of her demise before embarking on the story, but understand by the end of book one that it alluded to the tip of her burning cigarettes and her time spent gazing at the embers of a dying fire. I’ve only read the prologue to “’Tis” so far, but see that Frank’s mother is mentioned on this very first page, so will eagerly take up the tale now as he arrives safely in New York and the sequel unfolds. I hope she continues to figure in this second tome: she’s a fighter and a survivor and I’m as keen to know more about her as I am to read more about him. Onward and upward.
Rating : 10/10
Pulitzer Prizewinner for Biography/Autobiography 1997, National Book Critics Circle Award 1996, etc