Edmund de Waal's family memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes follows the lives of a wealthy Jewish family living in Europe through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The key that unlocks these lives is a collection of 264 tiny Japanese carvings, netsuke, including the eponymous hare with amber eyes. Arriving in Paris from Japan in the nineteenth century, the netsuke were bought by a relative of the author's. This relative also happened to be one of the models for Proust's Swann, and was a friend and patron of many of the best known names in Impressionism including Renoir and Monet.
Given as a wedding present to de Waal's great-grandparents the netsuke were spirited away by a family servant, following the family's forced expulsion from Vienna by the Nazis; who preserved them, and handed them back to the family at the end of the war. The netsuke then travelled back to Japan, with de Waal's great-uncle before finally crossing the world again to London.
What makes this story so interesting, besides de Waal's beautiful writing, is his family history - wouldn't we all love to have a character in our family who was a major influence on Western literature, and who had been caught up in the heady milieu of Impressionist Paris? I did however find the book slightly disappointing. I had heard that it had been brilliantly well reviewed and that it had won the Costa biography award (the Costas have long been one of my favourite literary awards). I had thought that there would be rather more about the netsuke in the book, but in fact they have a very marginal, if important role. I longed for there to be more detail about them, how did they come to be made? Where were they made? What was their history before they came to Europe? but there was very little detail.
The family themselves were fabulously wealthy and so, perhaps inevitably, found themselves at the centre of artistic, and, to a lesser extent, political movements in the turbulent years of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century. Their story is in some ways a microcosm of many another story of Jewish life in the twentieth century. One thing that is incredibly striking reading this is the extent of anti-Semitism throughout Europe PRIOR to the Nazi takeover, and this certainly made for thought-provoking reading.
It was hard though, sometimes, to feel any great degree of empathy for the family. Their wealth, and to a certain extent their snobbery, sometimes got in the way. A typical example of this was the story of Anna, their loyal servant for many years. The only servant who managed to smuggle out some of their belongings (the netsuke) from under the noses of the SS, and who preserved them faithfully until the family's return to Vienna at the end of the war. What details do we have of Anna's background, a beloved family retainer? What reward did she receive for her loyalty? We know nothing, not even, as the author admits, her name. So, this is, undoubtedly, a brilliantly well-written family memoir, that tells us a lot about the life of the rich in-crowd of nineteenth/twentieth century central Europe, but it's sadly lacking a heart at its centre.