Friday, October 17, 2008

Angela's Ashes

I recently read a book called Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Its the author's memoirs of his childhood, and I picked it up because a friend had listed it as her favourite book and also because it had won a Pulitzer.

I was visiting my parents at the time, and had plenty of time to relax and read, so in this situation, it would've usually taken me 2-3 days to finish a book this size, 4 days at the max. I started reading one night after dinner, finished chapter 1 and then picked it up again only a few days later. I finally completed it only about 3 weeks later.

Why? Because the author recollects a childhood so unbelievably miserable, there was just no way I could spend too long with the book at one stretch. Definitely I could not bear the thought of reading it after I had enjoyed my mom's wonderful meals, not when he described the carelessness of his alcoholic father and embittered mother, his and his brothers' painful hunger, the many, many years they spent surviving only on bread and tea, and many more instances of desperate poverty.

His earliest memories are from when he was four, around the time of the Great Depression in America, and they were forced to move back to their native Ireland from the US because of their poverty. That's where things go from bad to worse and even more worse.

Though they have family nearby, they're forced to survive on dole money from the government, most of which the father drinks away. They live in a hellish house, with the street's only toilet right next to their door. The lack of proper clothes, nutrition and Ireland's bitter cold see to it that the author loses two younger siblings before he is five, another baby having already died back in the States. And the problems and tragedies just keep piling on.

But despite such a horrific childhood, the book is not written in a way to gain sympathy. Its just a straightforward narrative that's surprisingly funny at times, penned in such a way that you could almost hear someone narrating it in that typical Irish accent. And I think that, because its tone is never plainitive, or sad or bitter, but just matter-of-fact, is exactly what makes this book so hard-hitting.

We know that children, inspite of their innocence, are sometimes very insightful and see things much more clearly than adults do, and the author was no different. The book reflects that mix of innocence and insight in a way that just tugs on every emotional string.

All through their childhood, whenever their father returned home late at night, drunk, he would wake up the author and his brother and make them sing Irish patriotic songs and promise they would die for the country if the need arose. In school, their Catholic teachers made them promise to die for the faith if the need arose. Father wants them to die for the country, teachers want them to die for the faith, and the child McCourt wonders ..... doesn't anyone want them to live?

There were so many more such instances in the book that make you stop and think. One other thing that especially struck a chord with me was when the children have to live with their maternal aunt because the father takes off and the mother is hospitalized. The aunt is by no means rich, but is definitely better off than the author's family, yet still is a very angry and bitter woman (presumably because she is childless). She takes out all that anger on these children, and young McCourt again wonders, she has enough money for food, electricity in her house, her very own toilet ...... yet, why is she so angry?

This made me sit up and really count my blessings. Many people must be doing it, I'm sure, yet I don't think we remember to be grateful for things like having electricity, or food, or our own bathrooms, or even health, the fact that we have all our senses in working order, as blessings. We are so used to them, we tend to take them all for granted, and that's why I'm glad I picked this book up.

Reading it was certainly not easy, but it's worth it because it makes you realise how much you really have been blessed with, increases your level of awareness towards the poor and reinforces that we have a moral duty to help, whether it is by giving your time, effort or money.

Edit: would like to add running water to my list of taken-for-granted blessings ...... we didn't have water for a few hours yesterday, and it was hell.


  1. somehow i cant sit through these kind of books, they make me immensely depressed
    but as u put it, it makes one realise and be thankful for so many things

  2. ISH - yeah, I had to make myself finish it & once I told her, my mom, also a voracious reader, refused to read it too. But it is beautifully written, despite such a terrible subject.

  3. I have added at to my must read lists, seems to be a really good one.
    Once I read ROOTS by I think Alex..somthing like that, cantseem to remember, its the history of negores how they ultimately landed in US. there also its full of sad memories, but then it give u a real insight into the happenings and the adversities thay have faced in life.
    After reading it, no one wud feel like subsribing to racism.
    reading sad books makes me feel more empathetic to others.

  4. Renu - yes, please do read it. But about other sad books, I think it'll be a while before I pick another one up.

  5. Anonymous11:26 PM

    I saw the movie... yes, it was quite depressing at times.

  6. Agnes - gosh, I can't imagine watching this one!

  7. God never has to worry abt tht part of me...even after crossing a street I'm thnkful tht I crossed it safely...sometimes I'm sure he must be thinking "Ee chochunne thanks allade verae onnum parayan illae":-p
    And abt the book...yeah it sure sounds depressing but if given a chance I definitely wd read it...I love to wallow in misery, shed a few tears & sit up & thank God all over again:-D

  8. no wonder you took 3 weeks. definately reading this book now.

    "......yet, why is she so angry?" Poignant...

    first time here. will be back :)


  9. Reflections - lol on the "thanks allade verae onnum parayan illae" part! But you know, you might get a bit more misery than you thought, seriously....its unimaginably bad sometimes.

    A - yeah, lot of touching observations throughout the book, its one reason I could keep reading. Thanks for the visit :)