Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal


The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal
Published in the UK by Chatto and Windus in 2010.

How I got this book:
Borrowed from a friend

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie's Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the 'netsuke', they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined.

From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siecle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke's journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century.

Spotting Dovegreyreader's review of Milton Place by Elisabeth De Waal last week reminded me that I had a copy of The Hare With Amber Eyes, a family memoir witten by her grandson, Edmund, awaiting reading after I borrowed it from a friend. I remember my partner buying a new edition years ago, probably around the time of the paperback release, but my reading habits were quite different then and The Hare's synopsis didn't appeal so I never read it. Now, some eight years later, I loved being swept up into this beautiful history and I wonder whether I might also have enjoyed it back then or if this is a book which has to find its reader at the right moment in order to be fully appreciated. Certainly I have seen numerous reviews where readers gave up fairly early on, and probably an equal number where readers sere absolutely in raptures. I would describe The Hare With Amber Eyes as a Marmite book (love it or hate it!).

De Waal's idea to trace a century or so of his family's turbulent history through the ownership of a netsuke collection is inspired. I loved learning about the ancestor, Charles, who first bought them in Paris. Quite the artist's patron, Charles' friends included many prominent society figures and artists and I was delighted to rush to our (copy of!) Luncheon Of The Boating Party by Renoir where Charles is the top-hatted man in the background. I only really know Paris from literature but could picture the salons and parties, promenades through the park, and the wonderful life of this affluent family - until anti-Semitism flared in the wake of the Dreyfus affair.

The netsuke then went to Vienna, a city I visited in September 2017. De Waal's evocation of the family's Ringstrasse mansion brough back memories of our visit and we must have been driven past it during our tram tour. Vienna really does spring to life from the pages and I very much appreciated the intensity of De Waal's research. The Austrian branch of the Ephrussi family is as intent on making their permanent home in Austria as the Parisian Ephrussis were in France. Again they move in affluent circles with balls and parties and trips to the opera, until we get to the late 1930s and the Ephrussi is swiftly destroyed in a wave of disgusting nationalism as Hitler's Nazis annexe Austria. This part of the book is emotionally difficult to read and also depressingly relevant to today. The coldly calculated Nazi actions and manipulation of public opinion are chillingly similar to elements of How To Lose A Country by Ece Temelkuran. What I hadn't realised was how post-war Austria washed its hands of any responsibility and how hard Jewish families had to fight to regain even a tiny proportion of their confiscated property.

The Hare With Amber Eyes is a memoir about family, about twentieth century European history, and about art. It is also about concepts of home and exile, how where one grows up can be more influential on our sense of identity than where one's family originated. For the Ephrussis, their sense of their Odessa roots is gone within a generation as they embrace the cultures of France, Austria, Switzerland, England. But there is always a lingering shadow of other people's refusal to see past their own preconceived notions.


Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Edmund De Waal / Biography and memoir / Books from England

10 comments:

  1. It's interesting to me how much our tastes change over time. How a book could be totally wrong for us just a couple years ago but perfect for us now. It's nice when you're able to read books at the right time though, and I'm glad you ended up loving this one!

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    1. It's ones like this which show me just how much my reading preferences have changed since I started blogging seriously. I'm more confident in my book choices

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  2. I've definitely read a few books that were right time and right mood ones and a few I've set aside for that optimal moment when it was me and not the book.
    I have read an older suspense novel where one of the characters was a netsuke collector. This is neat how the family memoir is written around such a collection.

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    1. The netsuke were the perfect connection between the different branches of the Ephrussi family.

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  3. You certainly seemed to really enjoy this one!

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    1. Yes! De Waal brought his ancestors 'to life' so vividly I could easily imagine their characters. It was more like reading immersive historical fiction than a biography

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  4. The last name of the author intrigued me as it almost sounds like the author could be Dutch! And I do think that sometimes books get to us at the perfect time, and reading them sooner or later we would have enjoyed them less or more. So I understand! I am glad you read it now rather than earlier and were able to appreciate this beautiful history.

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    1. Edmund's grandmother married a Dutchman so you're right, de Waal is a Dutch surname :-)

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