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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Review: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

When Yun Ling Teoh retires from her career as an attorney and a judge, she returns to the Malaysian highlands, where she spent the years immediately following World War II.  Recently diagnosed with a degenerative memory disease, she wants to record her life’s memories before they disappear.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of a Japanese camp; her sister died there.  After the war, Yun Ling sought out Aritomo, former gardener to the Japanese emperor, to learn the art of Japanese gardening and create a garden in her sister’s memory.  Yun Ling is filled with anger at the Japanese, and overcome with guilt over her sister’s death. Her time with Aritomo becomes a time of healing and spiritual renewal.

As readers we live in Yun Ling’s mind, moving seamlessly between present and past.  So seamlessly, in fact, that occasionally I had to back up and re-read pages to ground myself in the correct time period.  In the present day, Yun Ling is visited by a man researching Aritomo’s life and work.  This storyline, combined with Yun Ling’s memories of Malaysia during and after the war, convey the brutality of this period in a very powerful and emotional way.  But this is not “just” a wartime story. The Garden of Evening Mists is also about beauty and love, and the ability of both to persist through the most horrific circumstances.

I had looked forward to reading this book after it was nominated for the 2012 Booker Prize, and received several rave reviews on LibraryThing.  I was expecting a 5-star read, which is probably unfair.  The writing was beautiful and poetic, but it wasn’t “unputdownable,” and I always felt at a slight distance from the characters and the plot.  Nevertheless, I recommend this book for those who like quiet, slow-paced, character-driven novels.

Review: A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry

Willie Dunne enlists in the British Army right at the beginning of World War I, and joins the 16th Irish Division, one of two southern divisions supporting Home Rule.  Willie begins his service excited about supporting his country, but quickly faces the intense fear of daily living at the front.  His regiment is composed of local boys, all from the same region, sharing common beliefs. Included are some memorable characters, like his Sergeant-Major Christy Moran, and Father Buckley, who ministers to the regiment.  Their shared experience creates a bond of friendship, but even that is threatened by the stress of battle.

Barry’s writing is beautiful.  Early on, he sets the scene for the carnage to follow:

And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish — and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack, and all the rest — their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly. Those millions of mothers and their million gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for deaths’ amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war. (p. 4)

And, later, Barry describes the moments after a man has been court-martialed and shot, with echoes of the earlier passage:

The birds began to sing in the stand of trees behind the fallen body. It was as if he never had been. It was as if there never had been a proper reason for a life, as if all stories and pictures were a lie and a nonsense. It was as if blood were ashes and the song of a life was the only the painful tension of a baby’s cry. How his mother had loved him and rejoiced in his coming and fed him were hardly known. He seemed in that moment to leave no echo in the world. (p. 161)

Despite this superb prose, A Long Long Way was too much like other World War I novels I’ve read.  Think All Quiet on the Western Front, but with Irish soldiers, and the 1916 Easter Rising thrown in for good measure.  The soldiers begin as raw, enthusiastic recruits, until they see the horrors of battle.  Men are injured, left with lifelong scars or worse.  Other men are lost; friendships end in an instant.  Home leave is not the pleasant respite expected, but instead fraught with conflicting emotions.  And after a time, the protagonist and reader alike have to ask themselves, “what’s it all for?”

This is a well-written book, recommended if you’re new to war literature or interested specifically in the Irish war experience.

You may also be interested in my review of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement, by Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is a series of twelve novellas originally published between 1951 and 1975.  Narrated by Nick Jenkins, the story begins during his school days in the 1920s, and continues for more than half a century.  The books are not as much about Nick as they are about people he meets, and how their paths repeatedly cross over time.  Chicago Press published the series as collections of three novellas they called “movements”.  I read the first two movements last year, and discovered a gem of English literature.  The Third Movement is set during World War II; the titles of each novella — The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers — have a distinct military tone.

This installment opens with Nick assigned to a military unit stationed in Ireland.  The war is in its early days, and very few have seen real action.  Nick finds himself banded together with a variety of men, many bankers by trade who cannot relate to his work as a writer.  And there are some from less educated classes whom he would never meet outside the military.  Inevitably, there are connections between new characters and those we’ve met in earlier books, and so the dance continues.

Nick’s military career is a slow one, and almost entirely administrative.  He never goes to the front (isn’t that a convenient way for the main character to survive the conflict?), but the war still takes a personal toll.  Nick experiences his share of loss, and I was struck by the way he often learned of death indirectly, and long after it occurred.  Nick’s personal life advances too, but this is very much in the background.  His wife only occasionally enters the picture, and the reader doesn’t learn much about how the war affected her, even though she would have been devastated by one of the more significant losses in this book.

As I’ve come to expect from Dance, there is considerably more talk than action.  It’s difficult to describe the pleasure that comes from reading these books.  It’s all in the dance metaphor, which is so rich and satisfying.  I love the element of surprise when a nameless character is described at great length, and Powell gradually reveals they are a significant player from a earlier novella.  When new characters enter the story, I look for clues to their significance: will they enter the dance later?  And in what way?

I have only one movement left to read, and I’m torn by wanting to complete the series, and yet wishing it would never end.

My reviews of the earlier books:

Review: Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston

This multi-generational family saga explores the impact of World War II and Nazi Germany, from some very unusual angles.  It’s told through the eyes of four 6-year-olds, each from a different generation.  The reader meets each generation through Sol, a precocious boy living in California in 2004.  His father Randall works as a computer programmer, and circumstances have recently forced him to take a job with higher pay but a much longer commute.  Randall has a distant relationship with his mother, Sadie, and is closer to his grandmother, Erra, a professional singer known as Kristina in her youth.  Sol’s section of the novel ends as the entire family arrives in Germany to visit Erra’s dying sister.

From there, author Nancy Huston takes us back to 1945 one generation at a time, from Randall to Sadie to Kristina (all age 6).  She peels the onion of family relationships and secrets to show how they came to North America, and the physical and emotional toll wrought by the Nazi regime.  I can’t say much without spoilers, but their story was not at all what I expected.  Judaism and Nazi atrocities played a part, but in unusual ways.  And both the family tree and the inter-generational relationships were much more intricate than they first appeared.

I found Erra/Kristina the most interesting character, perhaps because she appeared in each generation’s story.  She arrived on the scene first as a staunchly independent elderly woman who dearly loves her great-grandson, and is appalled at some of his parents’ philosophies.  She despairs over their plans to surgically remove a birthmark.  Her fears seem irrational, but by the time Kristina appeared as a child, I understood the birthmark’s significance and her modern-day reaction was completely understandable.  Fault Lines was filled with revelations like this, that really drove home the importance of understanding the societal and familial forces that shape each generation.  This was a well-written, enjoyable, and thought-provoking novel.

Review: The Crowded Street, by Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby was such an advanced, groundbreaking voice for women in the 1930s.  In The Crowded Street, her second novel and one of her most successful, Holtby gives us Muriel Hammond: smart but shy, unable to attract male attention and overly concerned about “doing the right thing” in the eyes of her parents.  Early on, Muriel’s academic ambitions are thwarted by the headmistress at school:

Then, with a kindliness that Muriel found consoling even though it sounded the death knell to her hopes, Mrs. Hancock explained how there were some things that it was not suitable for girls to learn.  Astronomy, the science of the stars, was a very instructive pursuit for astronomers, and professors (these latter being evidently a race apart), but it was not one of those things necessary for a girl to learn. ‘How will it help you, dear, when you, in your future life, have, as I hope, a house to look after?’ (p. 29)

On leaving school, Muriel returns home out of some sense of obligation to her mother, who invests considerable time and effort in finding her a suitable match.  Muriel has feelings for Godfrey Neale, a local landowner, but he seems to always be just beyond her reach.  Muriel’s younger sister Connie, tired of the stifling home environment, strikes out on her own to work on a farm but her independent life is far from trouble-free.  As Muriel reaches her mid-twenties, popular opinion has it she will never marry.  She fears becoming like her spinster Aunt Beatrice, who paints a bleak picture:

‘But even more for your own sake, dear. You will marry, I am sure. Marriage is the — the crown and joy of woman’s life — what we were born for — to have a husband and children, and a little home of your own. Of course there are some of us to whom the Lord has not pleased to give this. I’m sure I’m not complaining. There may be many compensations, and of course He knows best. But — it’s all right while you’re young, Muriel, and there’s always a chance — and when my dear mother was alive and I had someone to look after I am sure no girl could have been happier. It’s when you grow older and the people who needed you are dead. And you haven’t a home nor anyone who really wants you — and you hate to stay too long in a house in case somebody else should want to come — and of course it’s quite right. Somebody had to look after Mother. Everybody can’t marry.’ (p. 223)

Most stories from the early 20th century would tackle this problem Jane Austen style, with the perfect man appearing on the scene to rescue the young woman and offer her a life of security, if not happiness.  But Holtby has other ideas, ultimately giving Muriel the strength to forge her own path, one that is not exactly what her mother had in mind but is thankfully vastly different from Aunt Beatrice’s experience.  Between The Crowded Street and her masterpiece, South Riding, Holtby showed early twentieth century women a new path, with new options, and paved the way for social change.

The Sunday Salon Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Today is Remembrance Sunday, a day to honor all who served and died in military conflict.  And as it happens, I just finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front.  So without further ado, I bring you my review … lest we forget.
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Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel shows the realities of armed conflict through the eyes of Paul, a young German who served at the front along with several of his classmates.  When the book opens, the men have been in service long enough to adapt to the food and living conditions, to see action, and to come together as a unit.  And they began to understand that those in authority weren’t any better off than themselves:

For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress — to the future.  We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them.  The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. (p. 12)

It doesn’t take long for the war to take over a man’s entire being, and turn him into someone very different than he was before:

We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war. (p. 87)

When Paul is finally granted leave, he finds it difficult to adjust to daily life at home.  Some want to hear about his experience, but he prefers not to share it.  Some want to glorify the war, and he is also unwilling to take part in those conversations.  Some, like his mother, would rather remain ignorant, which is just as difficult for Paul.  He returns to the front and sees even more intense action than before, including killing a man in hand-to-hand combat.  Remarque served in World War I himself, and doesn’t shy away from the details.  He also brilliantly depicts the emotional impact of battle, from remorse to complete mental breakdown.  The book follows Paul and his comrades through staggering loss, all the way to the end of the war.

Many books about war are a “play-by-play” of battle scenes told from the victor’s point of view. By definition, they seek to show why the war was necessary, and the good it brought to humankind.   All Quiet on the Western Front is something altogether different, asking readers to consider whether any good at all can come from war.  As far as I’m concerned, the answer is “no.”

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.