Book Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

Title: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
Author: Edmund de Waal
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-0312569372
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4.5/5

Beautifully evocative and elegiac, a history of a family. You know it will not end well, as this family is Jewish and the history begins a few generations before WW II, but de Waal is determined to bring the family to life through his descriptions of their homes, their idiosyncrasies, and above all their passion for art.

De Waal traveled to all the places this family had lived, and did his best to walk in the spaces they walked, look out the windows they did, and endeavor to imagine their lives. It builds slowly as he paints in the family’s background, and how Charles Ephrussi collected the netsuke that bind the entire narrative together, but as he moves toward 1900 there are more records, and the individuals take on shape and color and personality.

This is also the story, in a microcosm, of how Jews gained the right to do business and even own land in the latter 1800s, some (like the Ephrussi) becoming quite wealthy. The Ephrussi patriarchy had enough clout to call a halt to the latest Russian pogrom by threatening to effect the price of grain. So the pogrom was halted, but the fallout was an increase of antisemitic resentment.

But this is not just another Holocaust tale, harrowing as that might be. It is also a thoughtful, painterly, sometimes elegiac examination of how human beings relate to things, especially art things. Like the netsuke.

That sets up the scene for the painfully vivid account of Austria’s fall to the Nazis, and the horrors of having your house invaded, first by angry young men with their new swastika armbands who bully their way in just to smash things and take what they want. But when the Gestapo comes, the real horror sets in, as they deliberately, with a semblance of legal exactitude, proceed to catalog everything they are stealing from this family.

Such evocative writing and small discovered detail make this a story we want to follow with him and we find that this is not, after all, a tale of acquisition but of loss. The 264 tiny Japanese carvings (netsuke) bought in the 1870s in Paris are all that now remain of the family possessions. We also come to understand another loss: the Ephrussis no longer felt defined by their Jewish origins: artists and socialites passed through their grand salons. It is shocking to discover that even those who enjoyed their patronage were casually anti-Semitic. It is hard to read the vivid account of the abrupt violence of the Nazis as they took (almost) every precious possession from them, leaving them, in the end, only their Jewishness.

If you love history and art—and the melding of the two—that I think you will find it impossible not to be taken with Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes.” This may be a non-fiction book, but I had to remind myself of that at times. I got completely caught up in the Ephussi family history and at times turned the pages as if I were reading a thriller, wanting to make sure that the family would be alright. The reason the book scored 4.5 stars is that at some points the descriptions of art work went a bit too deep for me, who has no real knowledge of or interest in art history. Other than that I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story and is interested in history. This is a fascinating read!

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One thought on “Book Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

  1. Claire Datnow

    02/07/12 08:20 FILED IN: HISTORICAL NOVELS
    Inherited Objects Inspire Family History and Storytelling
    When I came across a review of The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal, I was immediately struck by the book’s premise, so strikingly similar to my historical novel The Nine Inheritors: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Family and Their Ancient Torah Scroll.
    I immediately downloaded a copy to my iPad and became engrossed in following de Waal as he retraces his remarkable family’s history. Although de Waal’s book is non fiction, both books weave together a family’s personal history with their priceless inheritance; both trace the journey of the family and its inheritance against the backdrop of tumultuous and brutal historical events; both travel across time and continents; both ask questions about identity, about who we are and the stories we tell our children; and both tell the story of Jewish family with roots in Eastern Europe.
    When De Waal inherits a collection of netsuke, exquisite Japanese miniature carvings, he becomes fascinating with their journey through generations of the remarkable Ephrussi family. The Ephrussi were a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking dynasty centered in Odessa, Vienna, Paris, and London, and were peers of the Rothchild family.
    The netsuke were aquired by Charles Ephrussi, scion of the Jewish banking family, from a dealer in Paris, in the 1870s— a relative of de Waal’s great grandfather, Viktor Ephrussi. Charles kept his collection in a black lacquer vitrine until he sent them to Vienna as a wedding present for his cousin Viktor and his bride Emmy. In March 1938, the Ephrussi home was invaded by men in swastika armbands. Only the netsuke marcaulously survive from the once vast Ephrussi collections of paintings, furniture and bric-a-brac. Edmund de Waal eventually inherited the collection, and it links the chronology of his memoir as he traces how the netsuke, passing from one family member to the next. As in The Nine Inheritors, the threads of history are inextricably woven into the story, tracing the rise of the antisemitism which led to the Holocaust. Such stories grow every day more vital with the passing of time. For more see review in Goodreads: Also see review in The Gaurdian:
    I am particularly looking forward to downloading the new Enhanced eBook, available in August, which will include videos of the elegant Ephrussi family homes in Paris and Vienna, and watercolors painted by famous Impressionists especially for the family, and the netsuke themselves—which come to life as if the reader were holding each one in the palm of their hand. The Nine Inheritors is also available from the iBookstore as an Enhanced eBook, which includes video of author interviews and inspirations, and high definition photos. I hope this inspires you to explore the books, and even perhaps to create your own stories, using family objects as your inspiration.


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