Thursday, 24 March 2011

Book #9 The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

The Hare With Amber Eyes

I'm not someone who generally reads non fiction but this was my second non fiction book of the year so far. It had simply caught my eye, I had seen it shooting up the Amazon chart, seen it promoted at Waterstones, liked the sound of the title, and bought it with no real idea of what it was about.

On the surface it traces the history of an heirloom passed on to De Waal from his Uncle, but it is really more of a wider tale of inheritance and loss. The heirloom in question is a collection of Japanese netsuke, I was unsure about what these actually were until I looked it up, thinking they were somehow like the crystal owl figure my Nana had on her mantelpiece when I was young. The netsuke are in fact like artistic buttons, used for belts and kimonos, but each has a different scene or animal engraved on to it.

As De Waal traces the path of the netsuke through his family, so too does he trace his own roots and his own ancestry and it is De Waal's personal journey as he does so that involves the reader far more than the netsuke themselves. It is a sort of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' with an heirloom as the celebrity, and the man investigating his family doing it the hard way rather than having it done for him.

You feel his personal connection to his past as he stands looking at the home of his ancestors The Ephrussi Family in Paris, the buildings now used for other purpose. The story begins with Charles Ephrussi, a spare son not needed to follow into the banking business of his family, and allowed to pursue an interest in art, becoming friends with many of the great artists of his era; who buys the netsuke after a craze for Japanese art becomes popular.

As he uncovers their story he uncovers a history of flagrant Anti-Semitism in Europe that is truly shocking, long before the rise of Nazism, but as we follow the path of that history, we inevitably reach the events of the Thirties and Forties of the last century, but how did his family survive? And just how  did they manage to hold on to their netsuke?

The Hare with Amber Eyes, is not just a family saga, but a story of hope, and how an object or a collection of them comes to symbolise that hope. It is an unusual story that I'm glad I read, and that I think that many would enjoy, and i think its current presence on the Amazon bestseller list is justified. 8/10

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