Wow. I look at my little children, who refuse to eat half the things I put in front of them just because the whim of the moment dictates that they don't like orange food, or that they would rather have peaches than grapes, or that they really wanted a PB&J instead of spaghetti. And here is this mother, in this book, watching her children literally die of starvation (and disease, and malnutrition, and whatever else is crawling around in the poverty they inhabit), and there is nothing she can do about it. Living in fleas, in filth, in actual unmitigated poverty of the kind I have never seen in this country, she does the very best she can, and you know what? So does the father. He is a scoundrel and a failure, but he is in a category of man with many others, and no matter how I tried, I could not hate him, because I felt he loved his chilren, and he always gave them his share of the food, and even though he drank every cent that ever came into his pocket, he was not to blame for their troubles.
Angela's Ashes is driven by two strong questions. First, I know that Frank McCourt is now a famous author and a much lauded teacher, and so I know that he dragged himself out of it, through the typhoid and the starvation and the infections and rags, and out into a better place in the world. So the first question of the book is, How did that happen? The second question, implied by the title, is that the mother (Angela) will die. So how is that going to happen? That's the second question. The magic of this particular engine, this particular method of making me turn the pages, is that these questions are never overtly stated in the text, there isn't a "Now that I'm a teacher, I remember back when I was an urchin..." and we don't have any foreshadowing of the mother's death, or any foreshadowing of anything. Those questions that drove me insane with curiosity (How could he survive this? How could he?) were just buried in the fact that the book existed at all, and had that title.
The other genius thing about this book is that the story has no "Now that I'm older and wiser and understand the world" type of context. Everything that happens in the story is filtered only through the consciousness of the main character at exactly that age in his life, whether it's that an angel brings babies and lays them on the stairs, or whether it's that the life of a messenger boy is the best he can hope for, or whether it's that devils will poke him with pitchforks for eternity, or whether it's one line of Shakespeare that infiltrates his education, we only see everything from right inside the character's point of view. Never the author, never the character later in life, only in the moment.
Rather than making the facts of the book more palatable, because the character knows no better, this way of narrating the story actually makes it the more horrifying, because there's no author to step in and say, "And that's just how poor we were, that we had to burn the walls of our rooms, how sad, how dreadful." Which leaves the reader to think it. And there's no author to say, "And with that one line of Shakespeare, the whole possibility of language as art was lit up in me," it's left to the reader to discover that connection for himself.
Brilliant writing, I mean, obviously, I have nothing to say that's not worshipful. Amazing, brilliant, fearful, desperate, grand. I'm linking to Amazon in case you want to have a look at that, but I am also going to bookcrossing my copy, so if you bookcrossing, and you'd like me to send it to you, send me an email.