I am genuinely surprised about how many people love this book. Whilst it does offer a lens on anti-Semitism across a century of European history, 'The Hare with Amber Eyes' also manages to be incredibly tedious.
I should probably offer up a few caveats of my opinions before offering my assessment of what is obviously a much-loved book. I am not a great reader of biography. I can probably count the number I have read on one finger. Despite having read many excellent reviews of this book in the press, I had decided it wasn't my thing at all. But then my book-group (which has a most democratic arrangement) decided to read it. Not being one to duck a book I don't like the look of, I gave it a try.
The novel traces the history of the author Edmund De Waal's family, though an inheritance - 264 carved Japanese netsukes. De Waal wants to trace their history and the meaning they had for their owners. I had assumed from this premise that the objects would be of great significance to their owners, but I don't feel that they ever were.
Originally from Odessa, the Ephrussi family were extremely wealthy bankers. The branch we follow first has relocated to Paris, where they are patrons of the arts. The netsukes were purchased as part of the fashion at the time for Japanese items, and I get the impression it was done without much thought; acquisition was the key. Most of the Paris section of the book is an exercise in name dropping. Ephrussi knew Renoir, Proust, and countless other luminaries of the time. - So what? It's vaguely interesting, but it takes more than a list of famous people to make a good book. The bulk of the first hundred pages, could be distilled as - 'Rich people buy stuff'; hardly a revelation.
De Waal's depiction of the Ephrussi family is lifeless, and perhaps this stems from it being a biography. In a novel, emotions and thoughts can be expressed easily, but I assume De Waal was working through source material that only detailed facts; what his ancestors did, rather than what they felt. The result is very dry.
Where the book is strongest is as a document of social history. The casual anti-Semitism of fin-de-siècle Paris, is something about which I was shamefully ignorant. The factions and politics around the Dreyfus affair was a subject that I was only dimly aware of, but the Ephrussis were at its heart. Interesting, yet the netsukes barely feature.
My impression that the netsukes were a mere bagatelle for the Ephrussi family was reinforced when they are casually given away as a wedding present (I don't think it was because they were much loved that they were passed on). This is how the story moves to Vienna. Here the netsukes become children's playthings, which at last shows some emotional attachment to them.
The Viennese section of the book is by far the strongest. The details of the family's desire to assimilate into Viennese society is interesting, as is the insight into the strong Jewish network in a city that was the cultural and intellectual hub of Europe. As the Second World War approaches the mood becomes stormier and the lives of the family more turbulent. The effect of the Anschluss on the family is devastating.
Interesting though this was, I still found the book lacking. The story of Holocaust is one that can't be told too many times. The plight of the family is of course, deeply affecting but not because of great writing on the author's part. This is a story that has been told many times before and so much better too. I wonder if people's love of this book is because of the emotive nature of its subject matter.
After the war the story trundles on, and to reveal much more would spoil what little surprise the book has. Despite having now been alive at the same time as the major players in his family's history, and having met and conversed with them, De Waal's ancestors still felt flat to me (With the exception of his remarkable Grandmother). There is one tantalising revelation that could have opened up the human side of his Uncle, but it is glossed over in a single sentence.
I seem to have had an adverse reaction to this book, and many will find my opinion unpalatable, but I found `THWAE' to be turgid and putdownable. The netsukes that supposedly form the backbone of this book, for me at least, failed to come alive. If I had to sum it up in single sentence (too late!), I would say it was `Cash in the Attic' meets `Who Do You Think You Are?'. A harsh appraisal, but I think an apt one. Mr De Waal's next book is apparently about pots - This one is about as interesting as watching glaze dry.
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