Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes explores culture, history, geography, politics, war, art, relationships, and family. Universal themes made unique by the methods used to bind them all into one fascinating story: a collection of Japanese netsuke (tiny wood or ivory carvings) and de Waal’s family history. Part family memoir and part history book, de Waal is able to take you through time and space to discover where the collection of 264 Japanese netsuke he inherited from his great-uncle came from. In his prologue he clearly writes about his motivation “I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls…I want to know whose hands it has been in and what they felt about it and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.”
As one of the world’s leading ceramic artists, de Waal has a unique perspective on how shape and texture can be important in how people relate to both art and life. His descriptions of these miniature sculptures and how each family member relates to each figurine, how they fit into daily life (and where they don’t) adds greatly to the story about how the collection traveled from Japan to Paris, to Vienna, back to Paris and then to Tokyo.
De Waal’s writing is descriptive, sometimes lengthy, but never tiring. He has an incredible knack for making you feel like you are indeed walking through the door of the palace in Vienna, or the drawing room in Paris– and meeting the characters that live there. Wealth, war and politics surround the lives of the wealthy Ephrussi family, once one of Vienna’s most celebrated banking families. I came away from this book learning much about art, war, family and relationships. Typically, non-fiction is not my first choice, but this book has changed my mind about the genre and I highly recommend The Hare With Amber Eyes.