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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

The Speckled People

Hugo Hamilton

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To purchase The Speckled People

Title: The Speckled People
Author: Hugo Hamilton
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2003
Length: 298 pages
Availability: The Speckled People - US
The Speckled People - UK
The Speckled People - Canada
Sang impur - France
Gescheckte Menschen - Deutschland
  • A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood

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Our Assessment:

B : an odd childhood recounted in unusual (and ultimately not entirely successful) style

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 31/1/2003 Michael Thompson-Noel
The Guardian A 25/1/2003 Hermione Lee
The Independent . 8/2/2003 Patricia Craig
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 29/4/2004 Uwe Pralle
The NY Rev. of Books . 12/6/2003 Colm Toíbín
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 8/6/2003 James Lasdun
The Observer . 2/2/2003 Anna Shapiro
Scotland on Sunday A+ 16/2/2003 Donal McLaughlin
Sydney Morning Herald . 15/2/2003 Andrew Riemer
TLS . 14/2/2003 Carlo Gebler
The Washington Post A+ 8/6/2003 Trevor Butterworth
Die Welt . 17/7/2004 Wieland Freund

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)his vivid, timely, moving and enthrallingly comic memoir (.....) The Speckled People is about homesickness: his mother's for Germany, his father's for an unavailable Ireland and the writer's for a home and homeland of his own" - Michael Thompson-Noel, Financial Times

  • "Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People triumphantly avoids the Angela's Ashes style of sentimental nostalgia and victim claims, and stands up well in the mighty, unending competition for most memorable Irish life-story. (...) Gradually, what the child-narrator sees and hears begins to turn into what he knows and understands - -secrets, conflicts, histories, beliefs. It is a bold strategy, because it does so call Joyce to mind, but it pays off handsomely. This story about a battle over language and a defeat in "the language wars" is also a victory for eloquent writing, crafty and cunning in its apparent simplicity." - Hermione Lee, The Guardian

  • "It's the child's-eye view that gives this book its poignancy and pungency, with all the author's linguistic resources subsumed under a single pellucid tone. By turns evocative, agitating and inspiriting, The Speckled People sticks up for diversity and principled dissent ("the silent negative"), while satisfactorily extending the scope of the Irish memoir." - Patricia Craig, The Independent

  • "Hugo Hamiltons literarischer Mut ist bewundernswert, nur auf den Blick des Knaben zu setzen, um diese unheimlich zerklüftete und gleichzeitig geborgene Familienwelt darzustellen. Doch er hat sich gelohnt. Denn bemerkenswert ist auch, dass der Roman niemals infantil wirkt -- und das ist, angesichts des schwierigen Terrains, auf dem er sich bewegt, alles andere als selbstverständlich." - Uwe Pralle, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The world here is viewed through the eyes of a child who does not judge, merely details and describes. But each detail and each description convey enormous and carefully measured levels of buried emotion and blocked-out pain." - Colm Toíbín, The New York Review of Books

  • "By the end of the book you realize that every glancing detail has at some point been gathered up and re-deployed in this process of grasping the world, a process both marvelously childlike and miraculously equal to the complexities of this richly burdened family. The cumulative effect is to elevate an act of scrupulous remembering into a work of art." - James Lasdun, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Though Hugo matures as the story unfolds, the simple, declarative sentences of a child's confused and partial understanding do not. (...) He has made an attempt on something impossible -- to show from a child's point of view what a child can't see. To the degree that he succeeds, it's remarkable." - Anna Shapiro, The Observer

  • "The beauty of this memoir is that Hamilton limits himself to the perspective and voice of his child narrator. In what are master strokes, Hamilton repeatedly leaves each tale at what the child did or didnít understand. Readers complete the picture." - Donal McLaughlin, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Hamilton's memoir traces, with admirable restraint and lightness of touch, the puzzles and heartache these confusions provoked for children who could not be expected to understand the zeal that drove their father into excesses, both at home and in the world at large, or the demons of the past that haunted their mother. Though a memoir, The Speckled People reads like a novel. Everything is seen through the eyes of the author as a young boy. " - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Hugo Hamilton has written about a complex and painful set of experiences. His memoir could quite easily have degenerated into a "See what I suffered and survived" story, but it never does. (...) If Ireland is ever going to become the strong, democratic and tolerant culture that it claims it wishes to become, it needs this sort of book." - Carlo Gebler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Though Hugo Hamilton's story will mesmerize anyone whose identity mixes cultures or marks them as out of place in that place called home, the lyrical power of his writing stamps his story not as journalism but as literature -- and great literature at that. The Speckled People is an astonishing achievement, clearly a landmark in Irish nonfiction; and I cannot shake the conviction that for many years to come, it will be seen as a masterpiece." - Trevor Butterworth, The Washington Post

  • "Hugo Hamilton hat einen langen Anlauf genommen, um seine wahre Geschichte zu erzählen, und fehlt auch das entsprechende Etikett auf dem Umschlag, er hat doch einen Roman aus ihr gemacht." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hugo Hamilton recounts his Irish childhood in The Speckled People. It was an odd childhood: fiercely nationalist dad would not allow any English to be spoken in the house, while German mom brought another language (and a great deal of other baggage) to the household. And Hamilton chooses to tell his odd tale in a somewhat unusual style, writing from the perspective of the child. He offers a great deal of observation and relates events without the deeper understanding (or the ability to connect the dots) that comes with maturity -- but Hamilton presents it in such a way that the story unfolds for the reader -- who can make the connexions -- in a way it can not (entirely) for the child.
       It's not childish vocabulary he relies on, but the sentences tend to be simple and the thoughts and observations child-like. Hamilton is fairly successful in his imitation (though by the end, when he's relating his mid-teen years, it gets quite awkward), but it's not a style that will be to everyone's liking: it can get very, very wearing. (This approach and style will probably be considered the book's best selling point, but it's a big burden too, and there are likely readers who will find it off-putting.)
       The story is a compelling one, an interesting look at culture, language, and trying to fit in. Hamilton's father comes from very poor circumstances, but he became an engineer (and his brother, Ted, a Jesuit) and works for the electricity board. He married a German girl, Irmgard. They have several children -- Franz, Johannes, and Maria are the ones that dominate the book, though eventually some more appear.
       The mention of the children's names isn't the first clue that the author has some trouble with his identity, but it's certainly one of the strongest, suggesting how to the very core these issues have affected Hamilton. For it's Johannes that's telling this story, but on the cover the author calls himself "Hugo". He eventually offers something of an explanation:

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.
       The Speckled People is a wary return, an attempt no longer to run away from the story but to confront it head on.
       It's Johannes' father who explains that the kids are "speckled people" -- half-Irish, half-German. And Johannes knows what else it means:
I know it also means we're marked. It means we're aliens and we'll never be Irish enough, even though we speak the Irish language and my father says we're more Irish than the Irish themselves.
       The father's obsession with holding on to his cultural (and linguistic) heritage is, by turns, admirable and laughable. It is certainly misguided: the father is a fanatic, and occasionally it does great harm -- as when he refuses to use the English family name (Hamilton) in his business dealings (he has all sorts of get rich quick schemes) and insists on using the Irish name: Ó hUrmoltaigh, making a mountain out of a molehill and preventing him from focussing on the actual business at hand.
       The children, who just want to fit in, also have great difficulties with the ridiculous (and desperate) insistence that only Irish be spoken. It even complicates their attempts to make friends, since so few can be found who speak Irish adequately and thus might pass muster with dad.
       The German mother allows her husband his odd ways, though she's a bit perplexed by his fanaticism. Unfortunately, she marks the kids in a similar way, as they are taunted and attacked all over as Nazis. She is also running from her past, hinted at already early when she types up some of her stories. "One day, when you're old enough", she writes to her children they'll learn what happened to her, and since the book progresses fairly chronologically they do. (Hamilton's foreshadowing-tic isn't particularly appealing and here, where the foreboding "footsteps of a man named Stiegler coming up the stairs" are mentioned (but the story itself not told until much later) it's downright annoying.)
       Among the most interesting parts of the books are the asides -- the mother recalling Germany, the father's attempts to start a business at home, the relatives, and visits to the ultra-Irish countryside and to Germany. The kids' present, for the most part, isn't nearly as pleasant. There's a great deal of repetition. Beatings from dad. Attacks from other kids (and what a bunch of obnoxious louts the Irish kids are presented as). Thankfully, this is the rare Irish memoir that's not completely awash in alcohol, but there's still a good dose of crushing poverty too.
       The Hamilton children have a lot to deal with, trying to fit in in a world around them where English is dominant and Irish backward (and German just alien). They're not allowed to be like the other kids. Domestic life makes up for it in some respects: there is considerable happiness in this household, but it doesn't protect them from the very different world outside. In addition, the irrational pursuits of the father (and his temper), and some of the darkness hanging over the mother, cloud things even at home.
       There's obviously been great emotional damage done here: by the end Johannes' teenage rebellion comes with pretty serious threats, and the author's flight -- from that life and that name -- suggest the lasting impression and damage were difficult for him to deal with. Not all of that -- especially why it did such great and lasting damage -- is clear from the book.

       Hamilton does offer an impressive childhood portrait, but the style can get annoying. There's a great deal of insight into this odd tri-lingual, counter-cultural upbringing -- a very different sort of 60s youth -- but the approach does not make it as appealing a read as it might have been. Perhaps this is the only way Hamilton could tell the story; certainly the approach is justifiable -- but that's not enough to win over every reader.
       An interesting experiment, but opinion is likely to split depending on the tolerance-level for this approach (which some will surely also love but which we found quite hard to take).

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The Speckled People: Reviews: Other books by Hugo Hamilton under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irish author Hugo Hamilton was born in 1953.

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© 2003-2022 the complete review

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