This is my review of The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal.
I read this out of curiosity as to why it is so popular, plus I was intrigued to know more about the fabulously wealthy Ephrussi banking dynasty, after seeing pictures of their beautiful former palace in the south of France.
At first, I enjoyed de Waal’s disjointed approach to piecing together of the details of his forbears’ lives, although his aim is never quite clear, even to him on his own admission towards the end of the book. He is specific about not wanting “to get into the sepia saga business..some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss” but I am not sure he totally succeeds in this. The characters often seem quite shadowy and thin, perhaps because, as a minimalist artist, De Waal is really more interested in objects.
His love for the netsuke, skilful Japanese carvings of everyday objects, plants and creatures, comes through strongly and I came to appreciate the way they form a constant factor, holding the shifting events together.
However, I nearly gave up on the book in the descriptions of great-great-uncle Charles’s collections of paintings and artifacts. It was not just a revulsion over all this acquisitiveness, although I admit that many beautiful objects would never be made without the rich benefactors to commission them. I also felt an idiot reading about paintings and the feel of tactile objects which I could not even see. Then I came across the anecdote about the tortoise whose shell was encrusted with jewels so that it could alter the appearance of a Persian carpet as it crawled across it. This inspired me to press on – I hit on the idea of downloading from “Google Images” copies of all the paintings referred to, to read in conjunction with the descriptions. This made all the difference so it is a pity the publishers did not see fit to include such pictures in the book – but they’ve achieved a bestseller without this, of course!
I thought that the escape of the author’s grandparents, with the patriarch Viktor, to the cosy world of Tunbridge Wells would haunt me less than the tales of the grimmer fate of many humbler Jewish families. However, it is moving to imagine Viktor investing loyally in Austria, only to have his house vandalised and to be deprived brusquely of all his possessions – then to be left in a state of limbo, in which his broken wife probably committed suicide.
Although the book rambles off in a rather protracted conclusion – it seems as if it could go on for ever, overall it is an unusual and thought-provoking take on the stories that objects tell.