failreview #1

The library is a great place at 7.30pm in the evening, even if there aren’t any nice books in Bishan Library (probably never will, too). The noisy students have left, because noisy students don’t find it cool to hang around the library for too long; their presence is desired elsewhere. There are only adults who don’t have anywhere to go, and teenagers who have made the decision to study at the expense of a timely dinner.

And then there’s me. There I finished Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.

If you haven’t read Angela’s Ashes and still intend to read the book in the near future without having anything spoiled for you, it IS a good book and you should definitely read it. The post is over for you. Same for those who don’t intend to pick up books, because I think I’d bore (and that wouldn’t do, would it).


I’m not a person given to tears – not now, anyway – yet I must admit Angela’s Ashes tested that limit time after time. Written autobiographically, one marvels at how accurate McCourt’s description actually is, given that he relates to the first twenty years of his life. Yet maybe it doesn’t matter. I guess the aim of a writer is to strike a chord with his readers, to achieve empathy, and it is all too easy to sympathise with young Frank, born poor, ridiculed, inheriting all the bad traits of a father he grew to despise. The extent of poverty and ridicule is of course more than what a “normal” Singaporean like me could ever fully empathise, but there are moments in the book where I can see myself in Frank. Frank is painfully frank honest with the readers; he describes his various masturbating and sexual exploits, for example, and also his not-too-empathetic responses to various situations (he appears apathetic at the death of his friend in the hospital), but that is where the book shines. Frank the writer is reporting as it was for Frank the ignorant youth, and in the ignorance the moments are captured. McCourt isn’t talking down at the readers in an overbooming omniscient voice, who are allowed to make their own conclusions about the people and the situation, fill in the gaps that young Frank’s ignorance left.

The underlying motif that really intrigued me the most was the people’s perception of religion and Christianity. McCourt used religion to insinuate the hypocrisy of many people in the towns that Frank went to. There are the priests and nuns who preach on sacrifice and living simply while rich foods are carted to their lavish homes daily. There are the middle-class folk who go to church every week and kneel at the altar all self-righteous, though they wouldn’t spare a penny for the poor when nobody else is looking. Yet McCourt brings a heartening ending to his opinions on religion (at least where Angela’s Ashes is concerned); Frank finds a resolution to all the struggles he has faced in the first sixteen years of his life where religion and his relationship with God were concerned. Maybe it’s the resolution that all of us want to know and believe. One that would reassure us that God loves us conditionally, that not even sins can keep us away from Him eternally.

Angela’s Ashes is a simple book, really, no big concepts (though ones that are marvellously expounded on, while not managing to be over-preachy). I’d say the key to its success was Show Not Tell. One of the basic tenets that creative writers would do well to remember, but one that McCourt uses splendidly to illustrate the utter depravity of Frank’s condition. Frank himself says little about his feelings about each and every situation, yet his reactions are testament enough to the hopelessness and/or anger and/or confusion he must have felt at the time. A picture paints a thousand words, and McCourt has painted many, many pictures in this first instalment of his life. I can’t wait to read the sequels.

If you’ve read thus far, please post a comment. I haven’t written a book review in a long time.


6 thoughts on “failreview #1

  1. This is more a reflection than a book review. A review focuses on the more universal qualities of the book. As in “everybody may be able to see a bit of themselves in young Frank”.

    Anyway, about the religion, what he detested was the foistering of religion upon people. In an interview (included at the end of my edition), he said that he wished to grow up without the “sense of doom and sin”. He also complains about the power of the Catholic Church then.

    So it was more about the antics of the church than God. And the happy ending would be the church losing its power.

  2. nice book review, you have a good turn of phrase and your feelings show in your writing, you could have a great future in journalism. Focus more on your writing ability and less on your crybaby emotions.

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