Several years ago, world-renowned sculptor/potter Edmund de Waal wrote a book about his family that became a runaway sensation. Word-of-mouth sent books flying off the shelf. The book, which sold more than 1 million copies, received many accolades including the Costa Biography of the Year award.
So why all the acclaim?
I just finished listening to the the story of de Waal’s family as seen through the lens of a hidden inheritance: 264 netsuke, small Japanese carved ivory and wooden ornaments worn as part of a traditional Japanese dress (kimono). Netsuke were carved with care by artisans but these objects were frequently slipped inside a pocket to provide a touchstone for the owner. Today, auction houses like Sotheby’s provide guides to collecting these sought after treasures.
The tale centers on de Waal’s Jewish ancestors who established a grain empire in Odessa, Russia. Dominance in the grain industry led to households established in Paris and Vienna. The family dynasty took root when the family moved into banking. Charles Ephrussi was a patron of Marcel Proust, Renoir and Degas in Paris. It was Charles who built the netsuke collection and sent it as a wedding present to a family member in Vienna.
Author de Waal’s painstaking research led him to cities across Europe and Asia over six years. His storytelling reels the reader in as the netsuke collection is threatened during the Nazi invasion of Vienna.
A wonderful audio book, The Hare with the Amber Eyes is both biography and history book. While listening to the tale, I found myself lingering in the car to discover the fate of de Waal’s relatives. I felt like I knew each character personally.
As I write this post, I imagine de Waal working in his pottery studio or walking the streets of London with a netsuke tiger or tortoise in his pocket. Telling the heart-rending story of this powerful Jewish family through precious objects is pure genius. The Hare with Amber Eyes is a gorgeous, quiet book that will stay with you.