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Unlike Frank McCourt, whose wretched Irish boyhood was chronicled in the bestselling Angela's Ashes, Irish novelist Hugo Hamilton did not grow up in a world of excruciating poverty and deprivation. More psychological than physical, Hamilton's youthful misery sprang from the cross-cultural confusion of his home life, a mulligan stew of unhappy contradictions concocted by his intensely nationalistic Irish father and gentle German mother.
In this fine literary memoir, Hamilton describes how he and his siblings were raised in post-WWII Dublin as "speckled people" (half Irish and half something else), forbidden to speak English and forced to dress in lederhosen and Aran sweaters to signify their dual heritage. He focuses a child-sized lens on his tyrannical father, a delusional Irish patriot trapped in the past, who speaks in slogans and fails miserably at every business venture; and his warm, loving mother, a tragic conciliator who emigrated to Ireland to escape the Nazis but who cannot escape her own haunted past.
Unfolding in Joycean rhythms that make it feel more like a novel than an autobiography, The Speckled People captures the baffled incomprehension of a child caught in the cultural crossfire of a war of words -- where language is king but silence prevails, where meaning gets lost in translation, and where the list of things that can't be talked about grows longer every day. Poetic, witty, and bravely unsentimental, it provides a boy's-eye view of what it's like to be a stranger in your own country. Anne Markowski
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Hugo Hamilton's charming book deserves to rank high on the list of distinguished memoirs that, with prodigious craftsmanship, combine the confusion, heartache, and joy of an Irish childhood, yielding incredibly affecting literature.
As the offspring of an Irish father and a German mother, Hamilton is one of Ireland's "speckled people" -- a term coined by his father for those of mixed ethnicity -- who struggle to find their place on the Emerald Isle. Hugo's father, a fierce Irish nationalist, forces his children to speak either Irish or German (but never ever English!), and Hugo finds himself suspended between his parents' competing cultures and histories. His father's grim determination to rebuild an Irish culture independent of the British stands in stark contrast to Hugo's mother, whose warmth and humor belie the ghosts that still haunt her: memories of her own childhood under the ever-encroaching shadow of the Nazis.
Told through the eyes of a child, The Speckled People resonates with a sense of youthful wonder and exuberance, and the simple, unadorned truth. And it perfectly illustrates Hamilton's literary gifts, in a re-creation of a world that is tender and deeply disturbing at the same time.
(Summer 2003 Selection)
The Washington Post
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 New York Times
The author of this painful, funny, densely beautiful memoir grew up in a household so at odds with itself and the world around it, the wonder is he was able to piece together any identity for himself at all, let alone write a book of such piercing cogency. As it happens, Hugo Hamilton has written several books -- literary novels as well as a couple of crime thrillers -- and the rare quality of this memoir owes much to his novelistic skills, not least his handling of the child's point of view throughout, with its luminously uncomprehending attentiveness to adult behavior. — James Lasdun
"I know what it's like to lose, because I'm Irish and I'm German," explains Hamilton in this beautiful memoir of a mixed childhood in the years after WWII. Hamilton's father says they are speckled, breac in Gaelic: spotted like a trout. With an Irish father and a German mother, Hamilton comes to Ireland as a boy in the 1950s and finds a homeland that will never fully accept him. Other children call him "Kraut" and "Nazi" and taunt him with "Sieg Heil!" salutes. Yet Hamilton is in many ways more Irish than they. His father never allows him to speak English and insists the family use the Gaelic form of their last name (O hUrmoltaigh), which many of their neighbors can't even pronounce. Despite these efforts, Hamilton knows, "we'll never be Irish enough." There is much in this Irish memoir that's familiar to the genre: the dark, overwhelming father; the tragic mother; the odd mix of patriotism and self-loathing ("the hunger strike and Irish coffee" are the country's greatest inventions, Hamilton's father says). But the book is never clich d, thanks largely to Hamilton's frankly poetic language and masterful portrait of childhood. This is really a book about how children see the world: the silent otherworld at the bottom of a swimming pool, the terror of a swarm of bees, the strangeness of a city transformed by snow. By turns lyrical and elegiac, this memoir is an absorbing record of a unique childhood and a vanishing heritage. (May) Forecast: A blurb from Roddy Doyle, ads in Irish newspapers and an author tour to Boston and New York ensures Hamilton's book will surface on the Irish memoir radar screen. It was published in the U.K. earlier this year and garnered rave reviews. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In an attempt to deal with his troubled past, novelist Hamilton (Sad Bastard; Headbanger) offers powerful reminiscences of searching for identity while growing up in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s. Half-Irish and half-German (hence "speckled") in an English-speaking society, he and his trilingual siblings were isolated from the world around them. Their father, a fanatic Irish nationalist, allowed no English to be spoken at home; Irish was preferred but German permitted as their mother's language. Because of their German heritage, other children attacked them as Nazis; because they spoke Irish, they were taunted as mired in the country's past. Meanwhile, the mother was wrestling with ghosts from her own past in Nazi Germany, details of which her children learned slowly. Events are reported from a child's perspective in a quasi-stream of consciousness style, reminiscent of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as the obvious point of comparison, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. Despite the seriousness of the content, this compelling book has its share of humor. Highly recommended for all public libraries.-Denise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Novelist Hamilton ('Sad Bastard,' 2002, etc.) recalls childhood in Dublin with a German mother and an Irish father so intensely chauvinistic he would not allow English to be spoken in his home. As one of the "speckled people" (not purely Irish), the author suffered especially for his German blood in post-WWII Dublin. Other youngsters labeled his brother "Hitler," called Hugo "Eichmann," and a couple of times held mock trials, once condemning "Eichmann" to death for war crimes. They had actually begun to carry out the sentence when Hamilton managed a sort of perverse Tom Sawyer escape. Fundamentally concerned with language, the memoir begins with a stark, spare sentence of the sort that Hamilton favors ("When you’re small you know nothing") and ends years later in Germany in the gloom of evening as he and his widowed mother have lost their way. Hamilton shuffles several stories in this ample deck: his own rough coming-of-age; his father’s feckless attempts to make a fortune (Dad failed as an importer of wooden crosses from Oberammergau, as a builder of children’s wooden toys, and as a beekeeper, stung to death by the ungrateful little buggers); and, most alarming of all, his mother’s account of brutal serial rapes she suffered at age 19 from her employer, a randy businessman cozy with the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, Hamilton’s mother says her family was not cozy with the Nazis; her intrepid sister once declared in public that it was a shame an assassination attempt on Hitler had failed. Hamilton employs a weird recurring image of a dog that goes to the seashore every day and barks itself hoarse at the waves. Many years later--many dog-years later--an adolescent Hamilton, having decided being aNazi isn’t such a bad thing, nearly drowns the animal for spite. Hamilton writes well and knows the secrets of narrative propulsion, but his story does not always engage or convince.
“An astonishing achievement...a landmark in Irish nonfiction…a masterpiece.”
“A wonderful, subtle, problematic and humane book....about Ireland...about a particular family...about alternatives and complexities anywhere.”
“Evocative, agitating and inspiriting, Speckled People sticks up for diversity and principled dissent...extending the scope of Irish memoir.”
New York Newsday
“A fine reminder that there are many ways of being Irish.”
New York Times Book Review
“Hamilton’s style is an engaging mix of the salty and literary.”
“A complex and layered story, intriguingly different from all those other Irish-childhood memoirs.”
“Unlike most Irish memoirs, this one is devoid of sentimentality. Which doesn’t make it any the less heartrending. ”
“Hamilton’s most successful book to date, after building up a fine reputation as a novelist.”
“The most gripping book I’ve read in ages...a fascinating, disturbing and often very funny memoir.”
Daily Telegraph (London)
“A memoir of childhood that often reads like a craftily composed work of fiction.”
“The long wait for this most talented novelist to cast his eye over his homeland has been worth it.”
“An astonishing account, both delicate and strong, of great issues of twentieth-century Europe, modern Ireland, and family everywhere.”
“A prizedelicate, achingly well-observed and wonderfully moving.”
“A masterful piece of worktimely, inventive, provocative and perfectly weighted. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a classic.”
“A memoir of warmth and wisdom...tender and profound and, best of all, tells the truth. I loved it.”
“Full of several different kinds of passion with a real tragedy at its heart.”
“A fine and timely book from an exquisitely gifted writer...beautiful, subtle, unflashy, perfectly realized and quite extraordinarily powerful.”
Read an Excerpt
The Speckled People
Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood
When you're small you know nothing.
When I was small I woke up in Germany. I heard the bells and rubbed my eyes and saw the wind pushing the curtains like a big belly. Then I got up and looked out the window and saw Ireland. And after breakfast we all went out the door to Ireland and walked down to Mass.
And after Mass we walked down to the big green park in front of the sea because I wanted to show my mother and father how I could stand on the ball for a count of three, until the ball squirted away from under my feet. I chased after it, but I could see nothing with the sun in my eyes and I fell over a man lying on the grass with his mouth open. He sat up suddenly and said, 'What the Jayses?' He told me to look where I was going in future. So I got up quickly and ran back to my mother and father. I told them that the man said 'Jayses', but they were both turned away, laughing at the sea. My father was laughing and blinking through his glasses and my mother had her hand over her mouth, laughing and laughing at the sea, until the tears came into her eyes and I thought, maybe she's not laughing at all but crying.
How do you know what that means when her shoulders are shaking and her eyes are red and she can't talk? How do you know if she's happy or sad? And how do you know if your father is happy or whether he's still angry at all the things that are not finished yet in Ireland. You know the sky is blue and the sea is blue and they meet somewhere, far away at the horizon. You can see the white sailing boats stuck on the water and the people walking along with ice-cream cones. You can hear a dog barking at the waves. You can see him standing in the water, barking and trying to bite the foam. You can see how long it takes for the sound of the barking to come across, as if it's coming from somewhere else and doesn't belong to the dog at all any more, as if he's barking and barking so much that he's hoarse and lost his voice.
When you're small you know nothing. You don't know where you are, or who you are, or what questions to ask. Then one day my mother and father did a funny thing. F
irst of all, my mother sent a letter home to Germany and asked one of her sisters to send over new trousers for my brother and me. She wanted us to wear something German --lederhosen. When the parcel arrived, we couldn't wait to put them on and run outside, all the way down the lane at the back of the houses. My mother couldn't believe her eyes. She stood back and clapped her hands together and said we were real boys now. No matter how much we climbed on walls or trees, she said, these German leather trousers were indestructible, and so they were. Then my father wanted us to wear something Irish too. He went straight out and bought hand-knit Aran sweaters. Big, white, rope patterned, woollen sweaters from the west of Ireland that were also indestructible. So my brother and I ran out wearing lederhosen and Aran sweaters, smelling of rough wool and new leather, Irish on top and German below. We were indestructible. We could slide down granite rocks. We could fall on nails and sit on glass. Nothing could sting us now and we ran down the lane faster than ever before, brushing past nettles as high as our shoulders.
When you're small you're like a piece of white paper with nothing written on it. My father writes down his name in Irish and my mother writes down her name in German and there's a blank space left over for all the people outside who speak English. We're special because we speak Irish and German and we like the smell of these new clothes. My mother says it's like being at home again and my father says your language is your home and your country is your language and your language is your flag.
But you don't want to be special. Out there in Ireland you want to be the same as everyone else, not an Irish speaker, not a German or a Kraut or a Nazi. On the way down to the shops, they call us the Nazi brothers. They say we're guilty and I go home and tell my mother I did nothing. But she shakes her head and says I can't say that. I can't deny anything and I can't fight back and I can't say I'm innocent. She says it's not important to win.
Instead, she teaches us to surrender, to walk straight by and ignore them.
We're lucky to be alive, she says. We're living in the luckiest place in the world with no war and nothing to be afraid of, with the sea close by and the smell of salt in the air. There are lots of blue benches where you can sit looking out at the waves and lots of places to go swimming. Lots of rocks to climb on and pools to go fishing for crabs. Shops that sell fishing lines and hooks and buckets and plastic sunglasses. When it's hot you can get an ice pop and you can see newspapers spread out in the windows to stop the chocolate melting in the sun. Sometimes it's so hot that the sun stings you under your jumper like a needle in the back. It makes tar bubbles on the road that you can burst with the stick from the ice pop. We're living in a free country, she says, where the wind is always blowing and you can breathe in deeply, right down to the bottom of your lungs. It's like being on holiday all your life because you hear seagulls in the morning and you see sailing boats outside houses and people even have palm trees growing in their front gardens. Dublin where the palm trees grow, she says, because it looks like a paradise and the sea is never far away, like a glass of blue-green water at the bottom of every street.
But that changes nothing. Sieg Heil, they shout. Achtung. Schnell schnell. Donner und Blitzen. I know they're going to put us on trial. They have written things on the walls, at the side of the shop and in the laneways. They're going to get us one of these days and ask questions that we won't be able to answer. I see them looking at us, waiting for the day when we're alone and there's nobody around. I know they're going to execute me, because they call my older brother Hitler, and I get the name of an SS man who was found in Argentina and brought back to be put on trial for all the people he killed.
'I am Eichmann,' I said to my mother one day. 'But that's impossible,' she said. She kneeled down to look into my eyes. She took my hands and weighed them to see how heavy they were. Then she waited for a while, searching for what she wanted to say next.
'You know the dog that barks at the waves?' she said. 'You know the dog that belongs to nobody and barks at the waves all day until he is hoarse and has no voice any more. He doesn't know any better.'
'I am Eichmann,' I said. 'I am Adolf Eichmann and I'm going to get an ice pop. Then I'm going down to the sea to look at the waves.'
'Wait,' she said. 'Wait for your brother.' She stands at the door with her hand over her mouth. She thinks we're going out to Ireland and never coming back home again. She's afraid we might get lost in a foreign country where they don't have our language and nobody will understand us. She is crying because I'm Eichmann and there is nothing she can do to stop us going out and being Nazis. She tells us to be careful and watches us going across the street until we go around the corner and she can't see us any more.
So then we try to be Irish. In the shop we ask for the ice pop in English and let on that we don't know any German. We're afraid to be German, so we run down to the seafront as Irish as possible to make sure nobody can see us. We stand at the railings and look at the waves crashing against the rocks and the white spray going up into the air. We can taste the salt on our lips and see the foam running through the cracks like milk. We're Irish and we say 'Jaysus' every time the wave curls in and hits the rocks with a big thump.
'Jaysus, what the Jaysus,' I said.
'Jaysus, what the Jaysus of a big huge belly,' Franz said, and then we laughed and ran along the shore waving our fists.
'Big bully waves,' I shouted, because they could never catch us and they knew it. I pickedup a stone and hit one of the waves right in the under-belly, right there as he stood up and rushed in towards us with his big, green saucer belly and his fringe of white hair falling down over his eyes.
'Get down, you big bully belly,' we laughed, as the stone caught the wave with a clunk andthere was nothing he could do but surrender and lie down across the sand with his arms out.Some of them tried to escape, but we were too fast for them. We picked up more andmore stones and hit them one by one, because we were Irish and nobody could see us.The dog was there barking and barking, and we were there holding back the waves, because wedidn't know any better. The Speckled People
Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood. Copyright © by Hugo Hamilton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.