Critical Overview

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Angela's Ashes was a massive success, becoming one of the most highly acclaimed nonfiction works of the decade. The book won numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for biography. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years.

Almost all reviewers praised the book generously. The vividness with which McCourt evoked his childhood was particularly appreciated, as was the hilarity of much of the book. Writing for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised McCourt's skill as a storyteller:

McCourt... waited more than four decades to tell the story of his childhood, and it's been well worth the wait. With Angela's Ashes, he has used the storytelling gifts he inherited from his father to write a book that redeems the pain of his early years with wit and compassion and grace.

Kakutani noted that the book contained little of the resentment or bitterness that a reader might expect to find in the memoirs of a man who had endured almost unimaginable poverty and deprivation in his early years. She also commented favorably on McCourt's descriptive skill:

Writing in prose that's pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we've walked its streets and crawled its pubs.

The verdict of Malcolm Jones Jr., in Newsweek, was equally positive: ' 'It is only the best storyteller who can so beguile his readers that he leaves them wanting more when he's done. With Angela's Ashes, McCourt proves himself one of the very best.''

In Time, John Elson described Angela's Ashes as a ‘‘spunky, bittersweet memoir,’’ noting that in spite of the bleakness of the story, McCourt's humor leaves a deeper impression: ''Like an unpredicted glimmer of midwinter sunshine, cheerfulness keeps breaking into this tale of Celtic woe.’’ Elson picked out McCourt's descriptions of his First Communion and his adventures as a post-office messenger as ‘‘riotously funny.’’

Neal Ascheron, in the New York Review of Books, called Angela's Ashes a "wonderful" memoir and pointed out that the central figure is not the Angela of the title but Frank's father, Malachy, whom Ascheron saw as a poignant, almost tragic figure: ‘‘McCourt shows a man who is almost literally dissolving, physically and mentally, in a world which has no time or means to help him.’’

One of the few dissenting voices in this chorus of praise was that of R. F. Foster, a professor of Irish history, writing in New Republic. Although he acknowledged that some of the images and events in the book were ‘‘marvelously realized,’’ Foster pointed out what he believed to be obvious flaws:

[I]t all goes on for too long .... its author lacks an internal editor, a sense of developing structure. The language is monotonous and the incidents are repetitive. The characterizations are perfunctory: people are identified by formulaic straplines, which are trundled out again and again each time they appear.

Foster also questioned whether all the incidents were as factual as McCourt claimed. He pointed out that when McCourt's father attempts to secure an IRA pension, he has to visit the back streets of a Dublin suburb, but in reality such pensions were administered by a government department.

Foster's skepticism, however, was not shared by readers, who bought the book in huge numbers. Angela's Ashes has been translated into nineteen languages and has sold more than four million copies worldwide.

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism