Posted by: roamingolivia | February 27, 2011

Book review: Hare with the Amber Eyes


I just finished this book, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, and I think it is incredible. When I first started reading it, standing in Foyles in the South Bank in London, I was captivated by the writing and the language, probably more than by the story. The story is about netsuke, which I had to Google after starting to read it, so that I could visualise what these things are. And I still don’t know that I care much about netsuke. So it is not the story or the nominal topic that made me care about this book.

The real story, which he prudently doesn’t focus on in the marketing as much as the netsuke, is the story of his family – a Jewish family from Odessa, in Paris and Vienna at the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries, and their fates in Vienna – and later in the US, Japan, England, etc. It is a beautifully told story, always tracing the netsuke in surprising ways. These Japanese objects sit in rooms full of Renoir paintings, in the dressing room of an incredibly rich Jewish wife in Vienna in the 1920s, and then move on to other fates I won’t describe because you should read this book. The end of the book focuses on his uncle Iggie’s life in Japan, and manages to be somehow intimate and neutral in an incredibly skillful way.

One review in the Guardian criticised the book for not delving more into the huge human costs of the historical period under discussion – for taking these netsuke out of their vitrine and transporting them, as if they were detached from all the human loss. (It has gotten nearly universally good reviews elsewhere, although the same is true from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom so I wouldn’t take that too seriously.)

I think that criticism was unfair. We have read of the background and incredible pain of that period, and he doesn’t ignore it, but he also doesn’t get sidetracked to turn the book into a treatise. He wants the book to be unique, and he frequently checks himself when he is turning one person’s story into a pastiche or a cliche – where he is trying to fit this person’s whole life into a cliched story.

Probably my only criticism is that sometimes when he does this, in the writing, it feels artificial, and sometimes he switches into first-person views of what it must have been like for those children growing up in these various periods. But he switches out of that mode very quickly (within 1 paragraph, usually).

None of the book is slow, but I was holding my breath and very emotionally involved in the story in the last 100 pages, and now that I have finished it, I hope to dip in and out of this book over the years. It is beautiful.


  1. […] want to read this book about Odessa. Like. A lot. I loved Odessa. And I loved reading about it in The Hare With the Amber Eyes. So I need to read that […]

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