The Hare with Amber Eyes book review

By Emma Brooks

On my last trip to the UK, I couldn’t help but notice that this book was everywhere: in all the bookshop windows and in the bigger newsagents, as well as at the airport, tempting me with its intriguing title and interesting cover. So since I am always on the hunt for a new book to read, I decided to pick it up based simply on the tagline “Winner of the 2010 COSTA Biography Award” written on its front cover.

About the author:

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramic artist, and now author, based in London. He was interested in pottery since a very young age, and learnt at the King’s School in Canterbury. He studied Japanese at Sheffield University and was awarded a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese scholarship which allowed him to work at the Mejiro ceramics studio in Tokyo and travel to Japan. In 2010, his book The Hare with Amber Eyes was published, recounting his family’s history.

About the book:

When I first picked it up I actually failed to notice that it was a biography, despite the fact that I had chosen it because it had won COSTA’s biography award. Looking at it again before starting it, I realised what it was and felt a little bit disappointed as I was expecting a novel. I don’t often read biographies and it is not usually a style I go for, so I was a little apprehensive when I started the book. In fact, what de Waal offers us is much more than a biography, it is a story. A story that spans many generations and that could in fact be mistaken for fiction. At times, you no longer know whether you are reading an astonishing biography or a beautiful novel.

De Waal decides to recount the story of his family by following a collection of netsuke. Netsuke are small Japanese objects often made of ivory, and we learn very early on that these are some of De Waal’s treasured objects, that are very dear to him. It’s not surprising I suppose for a potter to value such small yet infinitely detailed objects, which can represent anything from animals to humans. Having established that he owns a collection of netsuke and that he wants to know how they ended up in his possession, de Waal starts to retrace his family history and discover the origins of the netsuke.

What unravels is the most fascinating tale and combination of styles one could imagine. For a start, we are following the netsuke which as mentioned before are a typical Japanese object, and so we find ourselves confronted with Japanese culture. This is then intertwined with the fact that De Waal’s ancestors were Jewish and so we find ourselves immersed in Jewish culture and Jewish life. Finally, as De Waal starts his story in 1871, we are reading about Europe as it was in the past and throughout the book are reliving European history at its greatest.

De Waal’s ancestors, the Ephrussi, are a wealthy Jewish family. The story starts in Paris in 1871 and we follow Charles Ephrussi in his collection of many different objects of art and value including paintings, furniture and the netsuke. It is fascinating to read about Charles’ Paris, imagining what it might have been like to live there at that time and finding it hard to believe that he is indeed collecting such famous objects that are still heard of today (such as paintings by Degas). Not only that, but he is in close artistic circles, being friends with Degas, Manet, Monet, Proust… It is unbelievable to think that he knew these people well, people whose works of art are still looked at, exhibited and admired today.

But we also discover what its like to be a Jew or to come from a wealthy Jewish family in Europe, and live with a constant undercurrent of anti-semitism. Already back in 1871 Charles and his family were victims of anti-semitism, their success being envied and then dismissed because they were Jewish. We follow this anti-semitism all the way through to the First and Second World Wars, in which we follow the fate of De Waal’s ancestors and family anxiously, wondering how they will escape the terror that is engulfing Europe. It is a fascinating tale and perspective that is not often enough explored.

Following the netsuke across Europe, first in Paris then Vienna, Turnbridge Wells and eventually to end up in Japan, De Waal tells us the interesting and moving story of his ancestors. The netsuke practically become a character themselves: treasured by Charles, played with by children, as De Waal’s own possession that he carries around in his pockets… They take us on a trip to a Europe past, through the horrors of the world wars and right back to the modern day.

If you are in search of a new read, then I definitely recommend this book, whatever your usual style of literature might be. Be prepared to embark on a new journey!

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