‘The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ is Edmund de Waal’s highly acclaimed memoir tracing his family history through a collection of objects. In the early 1990s, De Waal studied ceramics in Tokyo as part of a two-year scholarship where he met his great-uncle Ignace (Iggie). Following Iggie’s partner’s death, de Waal inherited 264 Japanese miniature wood and ivory carvings known as netsuke often representing animals, people or mythical creatures. Traditionally used as toggles to attach carrying pouches to Japanese robes, netsuke were originally designed to be useful everyday objects rather than purely decorative ones. De Waal became intrigued by the story behind the collection and how it came to be passed down through the generations of his family across the world.
De Waal’s investigation begins with his Jewish ancestors from the Ephrussi family. Originally grain merchants from Odessa, they later became bankers and migrated to Vienna and Paris where art collector and critic Charles Ephrussi acquired the netsuke collection in the 1870s. He later sent them to Vienna in 1899 as a wedding present to his cousin Viktor and new wife Emmy, de Waal’s great-grandparents. The family home was ransacked by the Nazis but the netsuke were left untouched. Viktor and his daughter Elisabeth had fled to England and when they returned to Vienna after the Second World War, they discovered that most of their possessions had disappeared but their maid Anna had saved the netsuke by hiding them in her mattress. Elisabeth later passed on the collection to her brother Iggie who took them with him when he moved to Japan.
The non-fiction I have enjoyed the most in recent months tends to overlap several diverse genres and topics in an unusual but cohesive way. In the same way that H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald covered grief, falconry and a biography of T. H. White, ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ can be read as a historical travelogue, a family memoir and an ode to collecting ceramics and other objects. From extensive research into journals, press cuttings, photographs and art history, the netsuke collection serves as a unifying thread for the story which takes in both de Waal’s personal family history and the context of European history and culture from the mid-nineteenth century through to the early twenty-first century. The wide scope of de Waal’s research across nearly 150 years of history meant that the narrative meandered more than I would have liked at some points but overall, it is an intriguing and compelling family biography.
Given that ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ is about a collection of objects, I’m glad I was lucky enough to find a copy of the illustrated edition in an Oxfam bookshop last year. It includes over 200 colour photographs of the various locations, paintings and other objects mentioned in the text which really helps brings the book to life and I strongly recommend seeking out this particular edition if you can. ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ is a beautifully written account of a truly unique piece of family history and definitely a worthy winner of the Costa Biography award in 2010.