Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt

I had no intention to read this. It had been sitting on the pile for more than a year, until I had enough and chose it for the non-fiction challenge. See, I moan about the restrictions of challenges, but sometimes they help overcome some unreasonable blocks about some books we've had for ages. Like Angela's Ashes. In my head I had the notion that it was gonna be an immensely depressive read. I've seen the movie a while ago, and it was, immensely depressive. All the blog reviews I had read agreed. Very sad, unbearable, even boring.
But they must have read a different book, because I ended up enjoying it very much, I even found myself laughing and smiling quite often. It must be because of the language. Even when it recounts the most incredible hardship, it always has its very Irish way of telling it.
You have to get used to it, though. Especially because the prose doesn't use any quotation marks, which I didn't find confusing, but might require some adjusting at the beginning. I thought it added to the musicality and the flow of the narration.
So, the book, as many of you might know, is about Frank McCourt's childhood:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, ot course, a mirerable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood
Forget about plot. This is hardship after hardship, in Limerick in the 1930's. Drunk father, depressed mother, constant hunger. While I was reading it I kept thinking how lucky I was that I could eat anytime I wanted! Not something I will take for granted again.
The story recalls Frank's memories from when he was 3 and still in America, to the Limerick years of poverty and rain. McCourt's memories are incredibly detailed, even during the early years. Indeed, you could wonder how he knew that much at only 3. So, I just assumed that at least these early memories were partially fictionalised to fit the story.
I understand that reading about what it is about doesn't sound very appealing. Who wants to read about endless sufferance, dirty rags, cold winters and rainy summers? About queues at the dole, dead babies, stinky alleys and broken shoes? I wouldn't. But again, it's how you say it that counts, not what you say. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece of writing, but it was certainly entertaining.
Few examples: Grandam is a grumpy, hard soul, who never stops going on against protestants. But she managed to make me laugh when Frank's mother had just had yet another baby and there were fears it will die without being baptized.
Grandma is there to help and she says, That's right, no hope in heaven for the infant that's not baptized.
Bridey says it would be a hard God that would do the likes of that.
He has to be hard, says Grandma, otherwise you'd have all kinds of babies clamorin' to get into heaven. Protestants an' everything, an' why should they get in after what they did to us for eight hundread years?
The babies didn't do it, says Bridey. They're too small.
They would if they got the chance, says Grandma. They're trained for it.

Another favourite part of mine was Frank's composition called "Jesus and the Weather" which its last paragraph was:
It's a good thing Jesus decided to be born Jewish in that warm place because if he was born in Limerick he'd catch the consumption and be dead in a month and there wouldn't be any Catholic Church and there wouldn't be any Communion or Confirmation and we wouldn't have to learn the catechism and write compositions about Him. The end.

The conditions in which Frank's family managed to survive were unbelievable. I'm not surprised he left the country as soon as he could and never wanted to come back. If even half of what he tells is true, it would have been enough to drive anyone insane, or bitter at least.
But there was often a comic side of their miseries. Once their house was so cold that Frank and his little brothers Malachy and Michael run out of wood and decided to burn the wall that divided the two rooms in it. When the rent man saw what happened he wasn't pleased:
He says , Great God in Heaven, where's the other room?
Grandma says, what room?
I rented ye two rooms up here and now there's one. And what happened to the wall? There was a wall. Now there's no wall. I distinctly remember a wall because I distinctly remember a room. Now, where is that wall? Where is that room?
Grandma says, I don't remember a wall and if I don't remember a wall, how can I remember a room?
Ye don't remember?Well, I remember. Forty years a landlord's agent and I never seen the likes of this. By God, 'tis a desperate situation altogether when you can't turn your back but tenants are not paying their rent and making walls and rooms disappear on top of it. I want to know where that wall is and what ye did with the room, so I do.
Mam turns to us. Do any of ye remember a wall?
Michael pulls at her hand. Is that the wall we burned in the fire?

I can't help but laugh. The book is full of these tragicomic situations, which make the unbearable even funny, sometimes.
Ok, I didn't find it impossible to put down, but when I did pick it up I enjoyed it. i didn't expect it to, so it was a very pleasant surprise, which should teach me something about prejudices and expectations. Only, I know I would make the same mistake again. It's just too good to be surprised sometimes.

other blog reviews:

Peruse Peach
Well above average
Trish's Reading Nook

Let me know if you've reviewed it too and I'll add it to the list!


Heather J. said...

I loved this book when I read it a few years ago. You're right, the language is what makes it so wonderful. :)


I liked the movie and bought the book afterwards but never actually read it. Liked very much the parts you cited from the book. Very good review Valentina! I was looking for a book to read and will give it a go now to "Angela's Ashes".

Nymeth said...

You know, I had no intention of reading it either, because when I watched the movie some years ago I didn't like it all that much. But you had to go and change my mind :P I'm a big fan of tragicomedy, and judging by those bits you shared he does have a very unique way of telling his story.

Trish said...

Ha! I knew those challenges were good for something! Actually...I put this on my challenge lists as well this year and read it back in February because I had it sitting on my shelf for almost 10 years!! I liked it better than I expected as well--and I'm glad you really liked it.

valentina said...

Heather, yeah I don't think I could have read it otherwise:P

hello Elton!how are things? hope you enjoy the book!

Nymeth, I'm not saying it's a must read and that you should go out and buy it now, but I was very surprised to find out that it didn't depressed me that much, unlike the film, but it made me even laugh!

trish, 10 years! I suppose I shouldn't feel bad then for having books sitting there for a year eh eh..there's always hope:)

Trish said...

I got my copy whenever the movie was released--just looked it up on imdb...1999 so ya, almost 10 years!! I tried to read it 3 times before actually finishing this year. ;)