Have you ever read a book that made you laugh, and ache, and pulled you galvanically through from the first sentence to the last word, so that you finished the story in a day and a night, but at the end, when all was said and done, you had no idea why?
That’s how Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, feels to me. It’s (probably) my favorite memoir. In many ways, this account of a boy growing up poor in WWII-era Ireland feels like another planet. In Jos, the city where I was raised in central Nigeria, my house shared a back wall with a large slum. I was sheltered from most of that world, but still saw glimpses of addiction, disease, starvation, and hopelessness. It was not uncommon to hear people wailing in nearby houses over the loss of a family member—often a child.
In the city of Limerick, conditions were just as desperate. (And, unlike me, Frank wasn’t merely an observer. He lived through it.)
He talks about losing siblings and friends with heartbreaking regularity. Death was so familiar that some children looked forward to the loss of their sibling so they could take time off school and get a full meal at the wake. Even at a young age, they’d grown callous through exposure.
(Worth noting: Angela’s Ashes is a controversial book in the city of Limerick. Many of the city’s inhabitants don’t appreciate how Frank portrayed them, which is fair, but they also generally admit that conditions were as awful as he says.)
Grief may be compelling, but in the hands of a lesser writer, it quickly becomes monotonous. Frank McCourt doesn’t only harp on his grief. Perhaps that’s why his story feels so compulsive. He weaves other people’s lives alongside his own, and recounts the joyful, hilarious times alongside the heartbreaking ones. His depiction of his dad encapsulates this. His father regularly drank away both his wages and much of the charity and public assistance the family received, so there was little left for his wife and kids to live on. At the same time, Frankie’s dad injected hope and magic into Frank’s life by telling stories about figures from Irish folklore. He sacrificed, often going without food so that his children could eat.
The entire book mirrors Frank’s father. The humor comes from the same source as the heartbreak. It keeps you from feeling overwhelmed.
This book contains a sense of inevitability, of collision. We know that Frank survived to pen his tale, and that he eventually gained a successful and comfortable life, far from the squalid lanes of his upbringing. We want to see how he survives and raises himself up.
The vivid setting is critical, and it includes the author’s voice just as much as the physical descriptions. Everyone who reads this book talks about how “lyrical” the language is, and it’s true: the flow of sentences carries the enchantment and sorrow of the culture where this language is born. Usually, sentences the length of paragraphs and attributionless dialogue make for laborious reading. In this case, however, they force you to devour page after page. You never have a place to stop—you never want to stop—so you finish chapters in a heartbeat.
In a weird way, Frank’s story reminds me of Game of Thrones. You grow attached to a cast of nuanced people, each with their own ambitions, dreams, strengths, and failings. But none of them is safe. Someone who seems to be getting a leg up suddenly drops dead of consumption. An old man who defies the world and shows Frank kindness is hauled away to the sanitarium. As for Frank himself, every time he starts to lift himself toward the future we know he eventually achieves, something happens to slam a door in his face (literally, in the case of the Catholic church).
It takes a certain degree of ruthlessness to survive Frank’s world, and that, too, is captivating.
There are certain words I’m trying not to say here, because I’ve said them in my last several posts, and I’m beginning to sound like a broken record. But I think the thing that separates the best and most enduring books from humdrum ones is “narrative rhythm.” The story doesn’t stay the same; there’s constantly something new to pull you along, and a constant seesaw of emotions. It does a better job of giving the story traction than any plot twists or action scenes could.
Since all my favorite books have this rhythm, it’s something I’m trying to implement in my own novels, as well.