The Hare With Amber Eyes – Edmund De Waal

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?

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21 Comments

Filed under Edmund De Waal, Non Fiction, Review, Vintage Books

21 responses to “The Hare With Amber Eyes – Edmund De Waal

  1. Colette’s “My Mother’s House and Sido” but bear in mind that for Colette fiction/non-fiction are not distinct categories!

  2. I read this not long after it came out and enjoyed it but with some reservations. I’m even slightly surprised that it’s been as universally aplauded as it has. In retrospect I feel that De Waal got to hung up on what his family lost. His sense of betrayal was far greater than any sense of appreciation for the servant who risked her life to save the netsuke – without her there wouldn’t have been a book. By the end of the book I just wanted to point out to him that he was a succesful man who has provided his children with a very comfortable and privilaged background in which to grow up. He’s the sort of artist that great uncle Charles would have undoubtedly have sought out and would he have felt the need to create and make and do as much if the family had still got that incredible wealth? Or even the freedom to follow his own path?

    On the other hand I would be very happy to read more history like this – and imagine on the back of this book that I’ll get plenty of opportunity, and it really is a fascinating book.

    • I understand what you mean about the situation with the servant actually and maybe that was why the book didnt rate slightly higher with me.

      As for the hype, I think it was good it made me read the book, I wasnt bothered initially and then liked it yet I didnt like it as much as I thought I might. Make sense?

  3. Really want to read this one for all the reasons you offer here plus the fact that I am a little obsessed with netsuke as objects. Seems a natural match of a book for me.

    • I didnt know, and wish I had because how cool would it to have been included in this review, that there are some netsuke in this very house that I am staying at at the moment. I didnt know until this very day infact.

  4. I loved it. Thanks for your review, Simon.

  5. Chelsea

    Can’t locate a copy anywhere! Also, I have to admit – I had no idea what a netsuke was until I wikapedia’d it after reading this review! A happy Easter to you and yours, Simon, and thanks for the great review!

    • I should have included some pictures (especially now knowing that there have been some in the house this whole time) of them shouldnt I really, rather silly of me.

      Hope you had a marvellous Easter, seems ages ago now doesnt it?

  6. If you ever do come up to london some time in the distant future, we shall have to go to the V&A as they have an amazing collection of netsuke. Perhaps we can make up our own stories.

    This sounds a fascinating book, to enjoy when you’re happy to be a bit patient!

    • We shall do, though at the moment the reality of me being in London any time soon is somewhat slim, but never say never.

      I think if you rushed this book you would miss out on some of the undercurrents of the book, which sounds a bit pompous and deep but reading this quickly was what I was expecting and once I got my head around the pacing of my own reading it all seemed to work.

  7. Benitas Reader

    De Waal writes as one touched by his muse; poet, artist, collector … “The Hare” is beyond the beyond of “A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”. To be lingered over. After its reading one will have been enriched in one’s appreciation of family and art in one’s own life.

  8. Shirley Fremeth

    I just finished The Hare with Amber Eyes — I thought the writing was perfect.
    Each time I thought I’d stop reading, I could not put the book down. The
    descriptions were enough to put me in the room even though the room
    was occupied many years ago. I was very moved to read the portion that
    took place after Vienna was occupied, although it was not friendly to the
    Jews even before they welcomed Hitler. This is a book of a history of a
    family but it reads like a novel and I highly recommend it. Sasfrem2329@
    aol.com

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  10. Thought I’d pop over as am also finding it slow going to begin with and wanted to see your overall comments. Am quite intrigued now and expect I shall warm to it.

  11. Paul

    Stick with this one … Amazingly sensitive description of a world class art collection, portrayal of a once fabulously wealthy family that loses everything through the ravages of war and economic decay; how a collection of Japanese Netsuke sculptures becomes a metaphor of survival …

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  13. Christopher edwards

    Tenuous rather than tenacious methinks. Will read the book regardless.

  14. ruda

    It is a book about Jewish assimilation, antisemitism and thus dissapearance of once very famous , huge dynasty; netsuke is only there as a complicated, intricate thread through history of that family. Main theme is antisemitism, forever existing under the surface of every culture, every race, every century ready to explode, Netsukes are there to incite the reader, to sustain his attention, to point to this awful boil on the skin of our society yesterday, as well as to-day

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