Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

Last summer my husband Chris and I ran into someone we hadn’t seen in years, and spent considerable time chatting with her and her husband about books.  A few days later, The Hare with Amber Eyes arrived in our mailbox.  Our friend recommended it especially to Chris because of its connection to Marcel Proust, one of Chris’ favorite authors.   After reading it he suggested I might like it as well.  And then he suggested again.  I read the blurb and was intrigued:

When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.  And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story …

Edmund de Waal inherited the netsuke collection from his great-uncle in 1994.  It was originally acquired by a cousin, Charles Ephrussi, more than a century before.  The Ephrussi family left Odessa for Paris and Vienna in the 1850s, and became wealthy financiers.  Very wealthy financiers, with palatial homes and fabulous art collections.  They moved among the rich and famous, and supported the artists of the period (Charles can be seen in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party).  But by the time de Waal was born in the 1960s, the netsukes were all that remained.  This memoir relates the family history, and de Waal’s self-discovery, a by-product of his research.

The netsuke had a unique appeal.  During their long history they were sometimes displayed prominently, and at other times relegated to less-used rooms.  But they were always displayed in a vitrine, for a special reason:

But the vitrine — as opposed to the museum’s case — is for opening.  And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric. (p. 66)

The Ephrussi family remained strong through the early 1900s, despite the growing antisemitism in both Paris and Vienna.  But Hitler’s arrival in Vienna changed everything.  Homes were searched, possessions seized in the  name of the Reich, and men arrested on trumped-up charges:

This process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch-chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble and hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping yo back to your essential characters — wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back. (p. 251)

Needless to say, the war had a profound impact on the Ephrussi family.  For a while I was caught up in the human story and forgot all about the netsuke. I cried when they emerged from the war intact and de Waal revealed their story.  That’s a rare event for me, and a credit to de Waal’s ability to write a factual, engaging, and yes, “extraordinarily moving” memoir.  His ancestors came alive on the page, and so did de Waal, as he reflected on a project that distracted him from his livelihood for two years:   “I worry that I am becoming a Casaubon, and will spend my life writing lists and notes.” *  (p. 173)  Never fear, Mr. de Waal, it was worth it.

* What’s not to like about a memoir with a Middlemarch reference?

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

    • You’re right about that Marie. I just read your review of this book and see you enjoyed it while having a slightly different take on the book. This book seems like a hidden treasure — one of those you would think had been blogged to death, but apparently hasn’t. It’s now on my “books to chat about at cocktail parties” list (not that I go to many of those, but it never hurts to be prepared!)

  1. I have never heard of this book but I actually am really intrigued by the netsuke and the story behind it, especially with the WWII connection. And how fun to receive a book in the mail like that! I always love surprises!

    • Rebecca, this book was a wonderful surprise. Our friend’s thoughtfulness at sending it was one thing, and then for it to be so good, too: win-win!

  2. I bought numerous copies of this as Christmas gifts when it came out because it looked like a great read and then it won a book prize and became a popular read as well, however I have never got around myself to reading it – one of those reads waiting in the wings that I just know will be brilliant. Great review Laura and a nice reminder.

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