The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

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The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Madeline Wheatley
Reviewed by Madeline Wheatley
Summary: This is a unique book. Set in Paris, Vienna, Tokyo and London, it's a biography, a family history, an enthralling travelogue and a must-read story. It charts a journey undertaken by ceramicist Edmund De Waal to uncover the history behind his inherited collection of 264 netsuke.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099539551

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The Hare with Amber Eyes vibrates with that rush of desire to uncover family history that often follows the death of someone you love. It is also a meticulously researched book of wide ranging scope. When I first picked it up, it looked worryingly erudite, and I had visions of becoming lost in a sea of names, places and ideas. So I was amazed to find myself reading it in one sitting, completely absorbed, and losing a whole day in the process. Edmund De Waal had me hooked from the bottom of page one when he admits to kicking the gate of the Japanese language school he was attending in frustration at his lack of fluency. He then thinks sheepishly: what it was to be twenty-eight and kicking a school gate. This funny, disarming comment put me on his side from the off.

The hare in the title is one figure in a collection of Japanese netsuke that De Waal inherits from his Great Uncle Iggie. These tiny carved objects originally acted as toggles to suspend items hung from the sash of a kimono. De Waal's collection is ancient, and it contains figures representing many aspects of Japanese life: a miniature world of people, animals and things. The netsuke have been passed down through successive generations of his family since the 1870's. De Waal sets out to trace the path of the collection and its place in his family. In doing so he writes a detailed family history.

This is no ordinary family. De Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi, grain merchants turned bankers, whose network of contacts spread throughout Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This prominent Jewish family were friends and patrons of artists and writers. Charles Ephrussi (the original purchaser of the netsuke) was one of the inspirations for Proust's character Charles Swann. Among his large collection of Impressionist art were two still life of asparagus by Manet: the first purchased at such a high price that the artist felt obliged to paint an additional picture of a single stalk in thanks. Abundant references to the family and their palatial homes in Paris and Vienna can be tracked through the literature, newspapers and city records of the period. Darker tones of prejudice dominate these references once the netsuke move to the branch of the family living in Vienna through the world wars. This part of the story is compulsive reading.

De Waal is painstaking in his research, leading him to vagabond in libraries worldwide, following the trail of the netsuke from city to city, home to home. That remark vagabond in libraries is a typical De Waal touch. Simple phrases that speak volumes are his trademark. The book is alive with apt, often tactile descriptions of buildings and objects. The houses of upwardly mobile families are called spikily arriviste, while a netsuke of a medlar is described as a small, tough explosion of exactitude. This aspect of the book made me want to see whether De Waal's flair for bringing life to the inanimate through words is echoed in his pottery. Searching the internet I find examples of his ceramics in the V&A museum. Now all I need is a trip to London….

The Hare with Amber Eyes has won the Costa Biography award for 2010. If you are one of those readers who walk straight past the biography section of bookshops and libraries, make an exception for this book. You won't be disappointed.

Further reading suggestion: Tricky one, as this is not a typical biography, but you may like to try a couple of other titles that take a different route to their biographical subject, one through cookery, the other through science:

Bittersweet: Lessons from my Mother's Kitchen by Matt MacAllester

Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein

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Buy The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal at


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