My son Michael put this book beside my bed months ago and told me “I had to read it – Mum you will love this book”. It sat there with many other books that “I had to read” until a good friend Jill gave me her copy of the same book and told me “I had to read it – Sarah you will love this book”. So I did and I did love it.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is written by Edmund de Waal. It is the story of his family going back four generations to the original Ephrussi family in the 1870s who are living in Paris. De Waal inherited a box of 264 netsukes which are tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings from his great uncle Iggie, one of which is the hare with amber eyes. None are bigger than a matchbox and they had always captured his interest and imagination. As a child he loved holding them, touching them, putting them in his pocket and thinking about who had made such exquisite tiny objects.
De Waal has many questions about this collection – where did they come from? who bought them? How did they survive World War II? so he decides to find out.
I love looking at family trees and there is one at the start of this book. I began by gazing at it, looking at the names, dates and place names – Vienna, Odessa, Paris, Tokyo and London. The original Ephrussi family, are Russian Jews who are wealthy and hardworking and have moved from Odessa, via Vienna to Paris. De Waal’s descriptions of his family and their home and city are glorious – I felt like I lived in Paris, then Vienna, Tokyo and finally England all the while learning about this amazing netsuke collection and how it moved from family member to family member and place to place. How did a Japanese collection of carvings get bought by a Russian Jew living in Paris in the 1870s?
The family moved to Vienna in 1899 and remained there until the cusp of World War II when Hitler rounds them up – they are Jewish and they lose everything. The story about how this collection survived when everything else of the family fortune was lost to the Nazi regime is an amazing story – it gives you goosebumps reading it. This is a fascinating insight into the impact of the war on this particular family who had not done anything wrong really apart from being wealthy and Jewish. One theme I found particularly interesting was how anti Jewish Paris and Vienna were – long before Hitler was around. I have often wondered how Hitler could turn his whole country against Jews and then how so many of the French watched their Jewish neighbours vanish before their eyes and so many did so little to resist. I often ask myself “what would I have done back then?”
Edmund De Waal is famous for his ceramics – his work is influenced by his years living in Japan. However he is also a talented writer. If you enjoy reading history without realising you are reading history, this is a delightful read. It is written beautifully, thoughtful and utterly enjoyable. He is a tactile writer – he touches everything he writes about – and you feel like you can see what he is seeing.