Books: Embracing the asylum

Sue Gaisford reads an extraordinary tale of Irish hardship
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The Independent Culture
Angela's Ashes: A Memoir of a Childhood by Frank McCourt, HarperCollins, pounds 16.99

Every so often, Nora Molloy is carted off to the Lunatic Asylum. Most of the people in there have to be dragged in, but not Nora: she has to be dragged out, back to her five children and her husband Peter, the champion of all pint drinkers.

You can tell when Nora is ready for the Asylum, because all her children are running around white from head to toe. Then you know that Peter has drunk the dole money and she has been roaming the streets begging flour, in a fever of baking so that they won't starve while she's in.

Nora's son Mikey was one of Frank McCourt's boyhood friends. Mikey was the expert in the lane on Girls' Bodies and Dirty Things in General, and he promised Frank to tell him everything, when he was eleven, and not so thick and ignorant. Along with Question Quigley, never scared to ask anything in class, he is a hero of the slums of Limerick, where most of McCourt's book is set.

It's an astonishing book, but it takes some getting used to. Written with little punctuation, it rolls off the page in a continuous stream of linguistic acrobatics, with scarcely a moment's pause. The life it describes is hard to accept at first. It begins in Brooklyn, where Frank is born to immigrant, ill-matched parents. His brother Malachy follows soon, then twin boys, then an adored baby girl. But the baby dies, and grief and poverty so overwhelm them that they decide to return to Ireland where, at least, they have family.

From then on, things get worse. If the father ever manages to get a job, it lasts no longer than three weeks and he drinks his wages: the mother, the Angela of the title, is reduced to queueing for charity at the St Vincent de Paul Society and, eventually, to begging in the street. The children are permanently near starvation and Frank himself almost succumbs to typhoid.

The twins do not survive, but two more boys are born before the feckless father disappears without trace, and the family slips a little further towards destitution. Frank's whole existence becomes an urgent need to make enough money to get out, away from the murderous damp of the Shannon, back to the fleshpots of New York. This, eventually, he does.

Summed up thus briefly, it is a terrible tale of suffering and despair. But it becomes completely mesmerising and, somehow, not depressing: it manages to grab your sleeve and keep hold of you, all night and half the next day.

It could be the compulsive rhythm of the language. You can open it almost at random and find writing to make you gasp. Here, for example, is the paragraph describing how young Frank feels when his first love dies of TB:

"Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can't understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in my family and all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again."

It could also be the urchin humour of so much of the book. When Frank has become a paper-boy there is a panic because an English paper carries an article about birth control that must not reach sensitive Irish eyes. Around the shops the boys go, tearing out page 16 of John O'London's Weekly and pretending to burn it, but in fact selling it at five pounds a time.

The Catholic Church plays a crucial role. Frank applies to be an altar- boy, to go to Secondary School, to become a White Father, and is three times rejected: the church can be fierce and exclusive. But it also provides shelter and strength. At the climax of the book, when Frank is enduring a torture of anguish and remorse, a Franciscan friar is the only one with any idea of how to comfort him.

The shade of Joyce, visible through so many of the great moments of this book, shudders and departs. His alter ego, Steven Dedalus, could see little good in Ireland: McCourt is all too aware of the rugged spirit of survival that fired him, the spirit of Hoppy O'Halloran, the schoolmaster who insisted that the boys learned poems by heart and who told them that the mind is a house of treasure that nobody can violate. You might be poor, he would say, but your mind is a palace. If nothing else this book is a vindication of Hoppy.