Lisa Walker's Reviews > The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
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May 07, 2012

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Read in January, 2011

The author’s blurb on this book describes Edmund de Waal as ‘one of the world’s leading ceramic artists.’ The Hare with Amber Eyes, his first book, is a memoir of his family, the Ephrussis, who were one of Europe’s most wealthy Jewish families.
A collection of sculptures which passes from hand to hand over time is used as a device to tie the memoir together. Edmund inherits this collection of 264 Japanese ‘netsuke’, small wood and ivory carvings, from his uncle.
Edmund’s quest to discover the story of the netsuke takes place in Paris, Vienna, England and Japan. The story starts in the 1870s, when the craze for ‘Japonisme’ first hit Paris, following the opening up of Japan to the world. Their purchaser, Charles Ephrussi, is an art patron for the likes of Renoir and Manet.
De Waal imagines the lives of his ancestors with great detail. Inevitably, the rise of anti-Semitism casts a pall over the family. The survival of the netsuke when the rest of the artworks are looted by the Gestapo is moving and almost miraculous. The last part of the story, when the netsuke are returned to Japan after the second World War, provides a vivid insider’s view of expatriate life in Japan at this time.
Having said that, I’m a bit worried that I might be the only person in the whole world who doesn’t love this book. I picked it up with high expectations. ‘You have in your hands a masterpiece’ says the review on the front cover. ‘Impossible to put down’ said the back cover. Unfortunately, for me, it was all too put-downable.
I loved the concept of using these small and beautiful objects to tell a story, but struggled with the overwhelming detail and slow pace. Some of the descriptions of furnishings seemed interminable; ‘with its gently bowed legs with ormolu mounts ending in gilt hooves, and drawers that are lined with soft leather in which Emmy keeps her writing paper...’ and so on.
While I did enjoy learning more about this period in history, the writing style prevented me from engaging emotionally. Clearly, there are plenty of people out there who love to hear about ‘green-velvet lined shelves’ and ‘ostentatious nouveaux riches.’ If you are one of them, then this is for you.

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