Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Frank McCourt is that such a talented writer should have taken so long to give us this astonishing book. In it, he describes his childhood in the Irish town of Limerick during and after the second world war. The Irish section is the body of the book but it is sandwiched, as it were, in America, where Frank was born and where he returns as a young man at the end of the book. His father, Malachy, from the north of Ireland, had fled to America after being involved in the IRA; his mother, the eponymous Angela, was from Limerick but had also emigrated to the USA in the hope of remedying her poverty. Her shotgun marriage to the feckless Malachy was predictably a disaster from the start; Malachy was an incorrigible alcoholic who invariably drank away whatever wages he managed to scrape together and who finally abandoned the family altogether.
Almost the first thing the children saw when they arrived in Ireland was a cow; Frank's young brother had to ask his father what it was. On their return to Limerick the family lived in conditions of appalling poverty, whose description would not be out of place in an account of a childhood in a New Delhi slum, with the difference that New Delhi would at least be warm; Limerick was cold, damp, and unhealthy. Several of McCourt's younger brothers and sisters died, and the only surprise is that any of the children survived. Outside the family, numbers of his young contemporaries also died, usually of tuberculosis. The book thus contains plenty of tragedy, yet it would be wholly misleading to give the impression that it is a depressing read; quite the contrary. I found myself repeatedly laughing aloud as I read, such is the wit and humour with which McCourt describes his life. This is Irish writing at its very best. Some critics have compared McCourt to Joyce, but I was reminded more of Flann O'Brien, the author of At Swim Two Birds. However, McCourt is emphatically his own man, with his own individual voice that is quite unmistakable.
Brilliant set pieces recur frequently throughout the book. Perhaps my favourite is an episode that occurs when he is working for a firm that distributes magazines and newspapers to newsagents. One day a government edict is issued telling the firm to go round all the newsagents and tear out a certain page from a British magazine that they have already distributed. All the staff rush round Limerick doing this, to the intense fury of the newsagents. It turns out that the offending page is about birth control, and the paper boys realize that they can sell the torn-out pages and make a fat profit. McCourt's share of this bonanza helps to finance his subsequent return to America.
For me, McCourt's writing was particularly evocative, for I caught the tail end of McCourt's Ireland as a medical student in Dublin in the 1950s. That Ireland—desperately poor, drink-sodden, priest-ridden—has now vanished into history, replaced by a new, secular, and enormously prosperous society. Nothing to regret there, and it would be sentimental and patronizing to pretend otherwise. And yet the dominant note that emerges from McCourt's account is the constant seeking to maintain human values and a vestige of human dignity in the face of nearly insurmountable adversity.
McCourt continues his story in the sequel to this book, called 'Tis.