Book Review for the Week: Angela’s Ashes

I read Angela’s Ashes straight for one night and a whole day. It’s not easy finishing a 460 page book. Something I’d get slight headaches and when I get up, my body acts like a tired crone. Yet it’s the words that pull me and keeps me going –the tale of a poor family in Limerick and one young man’s to dream to survive and get out of Ireland. I haven’t done any straight reading like this for a long time but at last on a sunny Friday, I close the book with a bittersweet sigh. It wasn’t easy reading and writing this review was no fun trip either what with the builders reconstructing Italy upstairs, their noisy tools going pound!clatter! like rocks hitting each other in a dull monotonous rhythm.

I don’t know iota about Ireland before. All I know about it is that it’s where leprechauns come from. I didn’t know much about a lot of things: about Ireland being poor before, about the famine, their culture and customs. Then I stumbled unto James Joyce and the illusion of the Leprechaun land was gone. Delving about him and his works (except for Ulysses), I learned of Ireland’s ardent Catholicism, its pubs, its pints, its original Irish language, its dislike towards Protestants and the Jews and most importantly, their hatred towards the English. Now I understand what a professor of mine meant when she said, “Ireland was pawned to the English.” I don’t know about the present Ireland but from what little readings I have garnered about it from McCourt and Joyce, I now have an impression of old Ireland not as the mythic land of the green clover, St. Patrick and the wee people but a sad country with happy yet at the same time grieving inhabitants unsatisfied with life.

Angela’s Ashes is not just a tale of a boy’s epic woe in the slums of Limerick but it also explores the life and abject poverty in Ireland and the Irish diaspora. It is narrated in the simple voice of a youngster. That’s what makes the story so compelling. It is seen through the eyes of a child –the tragedies, the deaths, even copulation –portrayed in innocence, simplicity and dark humor. Frank wins our sympathy through this. He has endures more than any normal boy yet he accepts all his misfortunes matter of factly. Everything in the story is in present tense as if it’s still happening now, at the moment in our minds, living forever in the author’s memories.

I thought at first when reading the first chapter of Angelas’ Ashes that the Irish could relate more to this than I could, naturally. I don’t know about Cuchlain, Kevin Bary or Parnell. I don’t know things such as why the North and South Ireland hated each other and why do the Irish sing a lot and get the consumption most of the time? Yet when I came to the last page, I knew it didn’t matter if you don’t know these things because you would find yourself having common ground with the book. It contains the universal themes that are on our collective unconsciousness such poverty, God, death, family and love.

I have made a prior review of Tom Sawyer before this book. Both are portrayals of a boy’s childhood. But you can tell Tom Sawyer is fun fiction, a frolicking childhood, an escape from the realities of the world where you can find buried treasure. Angela’s Ashes thrusts you into the harsh realities of a childhood full of sadness where the characters never find treasure and consider it impossible to be rich. Angela’s Ashes is a more honest depiction of a boy’s life because it contained aspects never to be found in any innocent young adult novel: whacking and dirty things in general.

Isn’t it funny that children are often told to wait till they grow so they’ll know everything? Young Frank wishes to grow up so he can know all. I wanted to tell him that when you’re an adult, you realize you’re still at square one and far off from knowing everything. The bitter irony is the more you know, the more you know there is more to know.

Besides the pubs with its pints, you can’t have an Irish story without touching up on the Catholic religion. This aspect has such a powerful presence in Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and the same goes for Angela’s Ashes. Both Stephen Dedalus and Frank McCourt go to confessions and have visions of the Virgin Mary and the inferno for their impure thoughts and deeds. The priests go on and on about eternal damnation and the atmosphere was perhaps so suffocating and pressing that both abandoned the faith and despised the Catholic institution (it’s not present in the book but it was in his later life that Frank changes his mind on his religion).

“Make up your mind. ‘Tis your life, make your own decision (p. 422).” This is what Uncle Pa says to Frank. This was a very significant part of the book and I was disappointed when they took this part out of the adapted film. I understand they had to cram many important details into the movie and that all couldn’t fit but Uncle Pa’s words were what made Frank more determined to pursue his goal. But for its bittersweetness and epical woe, the novel was funnier than the movie though it will never give me the clear view of the pristine white Irish bums.

Like Frank, we should make up our minds, strive to make our own decisions in life, and see what’s out there. Let’s evolve and discover. Let’s yearn to do something more with our lives. We have but only one life to live. But then, could all that we’ve wished and dreamed for be really possible? Could it?

‘Tis. 

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