This is a mesmerising many-layered book. The fascinating narrative of the fabulously wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family moves through the decades from commercial Odessa to the Paris of the Impressionists and artistic salons to the brutal destruction of the Anschluss of 1938 in Vienna and a familial diaspora over three continents. Parallel to this, we follow with the author his own emotive journey to reclaim the lives lived in the vanished rooms of his forbears. This he does sensitively and successfully, imagining his way there through archives, letters and contemporary fiction. He visits all the great houses and, in Odessa, tasting the dust of the demolished palace rooms, he rejoices in the survival of the Ephrussi family emblem on a last remaining banister.
Such evocative writing and small discovered detail make this a story we want to follow with him and we find that this is not, after all, a tale of acquisition but of loss. The 264 tiny Japanese carvings (netsuke) bought in the 1870s in Paris are all that now remain of the family possessions. We also come to understand another loss: the Ephrussis no longer felt defined by their Jewish origins: artists and socialites passed through their grand salons. It is shocking to discover that even those who enjoyed their patronage were casually anti-Semitic. It is hard to read the vivid account of the abrupt violence of the Nazis as they took (almost) every precious possession from them, leaving them, in the end, only their Jewishness.
The netsuke are the beginning and ending of the story. Their exquisite detail is emblematic of this beautifully crafted book and its touching story of the individuals through whose hands they passed. One or other of them seems, like a rosary, to accompany the writer in his travels: a constant reminder to keep faith with his past.