The Speckled People: Living in a Mismatched World
‘When you’re small you’re like a piece of 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.’
Themes like ‘integration’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘historical context’ are probably the kind of thing you expect to come across in newspapers or in your school text books. They’re probably not things you would write about in text messages to your friends, or on each other’s Facebook walls. They don’t sound very fun, or fresh, or exciting. And they don’t sound easy. In fact, they can sound hard and complicated: issues which are reserved for people who wear suits and sit in offices. Refreshingly, this is not the case in Hugo Hamilton’s book The Speckled People. Hamilton’s child narrator takes us on a funny, touching, and, often quite heartbreaking, journey through a higgledy-piggledy world where nothing really fits together, and no one’s quite sure what they mean when they say ‘home.’
The Speckled People, set largely in Ireland some time after the Second World War, is the story of a young boy growing up with an Irish father and a German mother. It is a hectic childhood: his father is a strict and extremely proud Irishman who only allows his children to speak Gaelic (the original language of Ireland) or German, and who mistrusts anything British; and his mother, who speaks with the family in German, is the peacekeeper. She has an impressive ability to turn anger into laughter and to comfort her children while also trying to deal with the terrible things which happened to her in Germany during the war.
It is not the kind of novel which would be turned into a Hollywood move: there are no big explosions, no whirlwind romances, and there is no twist at the end. It is just a young boy’s story about growing up in confusion; about constantly juggling three languages; about what it smells like when his mother cooks German cakes; about trying to find out why the kids at school call him a ‘Nazi’; and about belonging to the people inside the house, but not to the people outside of it.
What I particularly like about this book is that it takes quite ‘hard’ themes and presents them through the eyes of a child. For example, the narrator doesn’t learn about the Nazis in the classroom or in the news, but on the playground, from the mouths of bullies. Also, the two countries of origin, Germany and Ireland, are not kept separate, but are allowed to mix together – the child does not really see them as two completely different countries with complex and messy histories. Instead, he sees them both as members of his family. He’s not Irish, or German, he’s ‘speckled’ (if you do an internet image search of ‘speckled eggs’ you’ll get a good idea of what this word means!)
Some of the most memorable parts of the book are when the narrator shows how Ireland and Germany are ‘glued’ together by his family: ‘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.’
At moments like these, Hamilton makes multiculturalism feel like an adventure playground. He shows that having a confusing childhood might not be easy or fun, but that it is most certainly never boring!