Its Frank McCourt's personal and heartbreaking autobiographical account of a childhood mired by poverty, disease and social degradation. Whilst Angela's Ashes can, at times, be a difficult read, it more than makes up for the depressing tone with moments of humour, Irish wit and the will to survive.
If memory serves me, there was criticism from some quarters that McCourt embellished his story with falsehoods and played up the extremes of poverty in order to garner greater attention and publicity. Perhaps he did, although I'm inclined to think otherwise. I say this because, McCourt's memory of his childhood is devestatingly raw and surprisingly detailed. It seems to me that a tough, unrelenting childhood will have a more lasting and visceral impact on the long-term memory than say, an easy, safe and secure childhood where nothing terrible happens and little, if anything, goes wrong.
The broad sweep of the book takes us from McCourt's early memories in New York, to his family's return to Ireland and their eventual settling in Limerick. The story runs right up until McCourt's late teens, as he departs Limerick for pastures new.
Inevitably, the book invites comparison with the film. In many ways, I wish I'd read the book before seeing the film, as the film stays very true to the book and there is little there that I didn't know already. Having said that, it doesn't detract much from the enjoyment of Angela's Ashes, and the filmmakers must be congratulated for staying true to the source material.
If nothing else, Angela's Ashes is a testament to the wit, character, humour and charisma of the Irish - their personality and pluckiness in the face of great hardship gets them through the best and the worst of times.
In a way, this book could be interpreted as a homage, a love story, to Ireland and the Irish. As memoirs go, I doubt there are many as good as, or better, than this. If nothing else, it will make you count your blessings.
For Angela's Ashes I give