Jennifer (JC-S)'s Reviews > The Speckled People

The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
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's review
Nov 05, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: librarybooks

‘When you’re small you can inherit a secret without knowing what it is.’

In ‘The Speckled People’, Hugo Hamilton writes, from a child’s perspective, of his Irish childhood. He writes of growing up in a home where the languages spoken were the Irish of his nationalist father and the German of his mother. English was forbidden by his father, who was so obsessed with trying to hold onto his linguistic and cultural heritage that he would not do business with anyone who could not pronounce his Irish name (Ó hUrmoltaigh) correctly.

‘Everybody else was in the wrong country and couldn’t rescue us.’

Hamilton and his siblings grew up in Dublin during the 1950s and 1960s. His mother, Irmgard Kaiser, left Germany after World War II to go on a pilgrimage to Ireland. She stayed in Ireland, and married Jack Hamilton (who had renamed himself Sean Ó hUrmoltaigh). Jack Hamilton dedicated his life to the anti-British, nationalist cause and particularly to the rehabilitation of the Irish language. His father, who had served and died in the British Navy, was largely (but not entirely) removed from the family record.

The children who mostly dominate the story are Franz, Johannes and Maria, although other siblings are mentioned. It is Johannes who tells this story, and while he signals a future name change, the actual change is not discussed.

‘When I grow up I'll run away from my story, too. I have things I want to forget, so I'll change my name and never come back. ‘

Writing an account from a child’s perspective must be challenging for any adult: reading an account written from a child’s perspective has advantages and disadvantages. A child can recount what is seen, observed and experienced without necessarily understanding and interpreting the context. A child’s account is immediate, whereas distance and age often provide interpretational filters. So, while I enjoyed reading Hugo’s account of his childhood, I wanted at times to read his adult interpretation of events. But, it’s a memoir rather than a biography and the child Hugo’s perspective of the issues of identity and belonging, and the baggage of culture and language are worth reading and thinking about.

‘The Speckled People’ is a careful return to a complex childhood full of challenges and secrets, overshadowed by present and past personal, national and international conflict. And of all the images in this book, the ones that come first to mind involve the dog that barks at the waves. For me it’s a powerful image.

‘Maybe your country is only a place that you make up in your own mind.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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