I think what makes Angela's Ashes so compelling is that McCourt somehow manages to tell his tale without gloss. It is difficult to write a good memoir, one that reveals the unvarnished truth of a situation without revelling in self-pity or praise. The complete poverty McCourt experiences as a child is stunning and yet we only come to understand that by the way he describes his situation. He comments little, which leaves us to experience his experience, through the eyes of a child. He does not sensationalize his experience, nor does he preach; instead, he allows us to think of it as "normal". This style makes the reality of his situation all the more shocking. It also makes it all the more real.
I did not finish the book thinking...sad, but that would only happen in Ireland. I finished the book wondering how many untold stories were still being written on the lives of children in my neighborhood. It made me wish I spent more time with my eyes truly open.
Many memoirs tell about a rise to greatness; few tell of a rise to middle class. His story does not inspire us to achieve the american dream, or to reach an athletic pinacle of greatness. His story allows each of us to feel grateful for what we have, and it makes us aware that even when we think we are poor, we are not.
In my opinion, McCourt has a vivid writing style that puts the reader in his shoes in a way that few others are able to do. He is able to explain the reality of abject poverty and the harshnes of life, as exemplified in this passage:
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
. . . nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
Despite the horrific conditions of his childhood, the narrative also appeals to the concept of America as a melting pot, one that rewards hard work and tenacity.