There is a very, very tenacious reason for me scheduling a post about this particular book on Easter Sunday. You see I thought instead of bringing you all something about an Easter bunny, I would bring you something about an Easter hare instead. One with amber eyes in fact! Yes today I am going to be adding to the many, many book thoughts about Edmund De Waal’s now hugely successful, mainly by word of mouth before winning the Costa Biography Award, non fiction book ‘The Hare With The Amber Eyes’. A book which I had heard nothing but praise of and after initially not really fancying reading it at all was suddenly desperate to read it as soon as possible and see what the fuss was about.
Having heard so much about ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ I was very excited before I had even opened the first page. I loved the idea of the stories behind a collection of over 264 netsuke that Edmund De Waal had inherited, where they had come from, who had owned them before, just how had they ended up in the family etc. I devoured the introduction and thought ‘ooh we are onto a winner here’ De Waal’s writing was quite intimate and you could tell he was passionate to tell the tale of these small ivory and wooden carvings he inherited from his Uncle Iggie, it was also jovial and intriguing at the same time.
We then moved onto Paris between 1871-1899 and one of De Waals ancestors Charles Ephrussi… and here I came a bit of a cropper after a few pages. I suddenly felt I was deluged by facts and places and people and I began to realise that I didn’t really know what the heck was going on. Where were all these netsuke, why was Renoir suddenly appearing all the time? So I popped the book down and had a re-think, this clearly wasn’t going to be the novel I had expected; this wasn’t a fast paced read (the assumption I had made, as I don’t only read fact paced reads, from everything I had read) at all. This was a book you needed to devour slowly and let it take you off on tangents and tell you about places and people you could then go off and find out more about. Once I had this in mind I had far more success with the first part of the book.
The book took off even more for me when we moved to Vienna in the leading up to the Second World War. This was quite a difficult part of the book; you could rush it because Edmund makes it incredibly readable but try not to for it to have its full affect, as the family were Jewish but the tale of how the netsuke survived the Nazi’s is quite incredible as is the tale of the families efforts to survive and what they resorted in. I could actually go on and on but I think to know too much about this book and the journey of both family and netsuke would be to do you our of a compelling read, so I shall hold off from saying much more.
What are the negatives? The initial one for me was the books tagline. I have seen it labelled as ‘a family’s century of art and loss’ which far better sums up the book than ‘a hidden inheritance’ in my personal opinion and sets the readers expectations slightly better. Whilst there is some mystery its not that hidden and I think knowing you are in for a book which does feature a family’s incredible tale whilst filled with so much art (I know I should have guessed that as Edmund De Waal is a very famous potter) that you know what your getting a little bit more before you read on. This is a small issue though in the grand scheme of things.
The other slight negative was also oddly a positive for me in the end but I could imagine would put some people off this book early on. There is almost too much to take in and learn on occasion along side the family tree and who knows who and why. Some of it like the the ‘Japonisme’ movement in France in the late 1800s which I knew nothing about, and seeing WWII from a different angle was utterly fascinating. I did feel now and again that whilst we live in the age of the internet (and more importantly the reference library) it seemed to disturb the momentum of the book when I had to go off and look up another artist or another place despite De Waal explaining and there being illustrations in the book too. It did in the end however make for a very rewarding, and rather educational without being dull, read I can imagine that some people would give up or feel De Waal expects his readers to know a heck of a lot about people such as Renoir etc before opening the first page.
‘The Hare With The Amber Eyes’ is so much more than a tale of a collection of netsuke and where they have been before, and this for me was even more interesting than the original concept when I got my head around it, it’s a tale of a family through decades and decades and one that leads you on so many more journeys (emotional, eye opening and intriguing) as you read. It’s a book to read slowly discovering as you go and ending up having had quite an unusual reading experience. 8.5/10
Who else has tried this book? Was it the rewarding experience I found it or did you struggle? Which other non fiction books about family histories I might have missed would you recommend?