Book Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

“I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself”, writes Edmund de Waal, “or [if it] is still a book about small Japanese things.”

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ is about all these things and more. It is a travel journal, a recent history of Europe and beyond, an observation on domestic life, a personal journey of discovery. And, of course, it is about the netsuke – de Waal’s inherited collection of miniature carved Japanese figures, hundreds of them that have been handed down through generations of his family.

We travel with de Waal as he unravels his ancestral history, each chapter connected by this unassuming collection of small curiosities. Through exquisitely detailed description, we’re transported to Paris, Vienna, Japan and Odessa, meeting the new owners of the netsuke and the worlds they find themselves a part of.

De Waal engages and delights with his linguistic portraits of the artistic and hedonistic lifestyles of the Parisian elite, the equally enigmatic Viennese, and the elegant simplicity of the Japanese. He parallels this sharply with the political, social and personal turmoil of two world wars, which impact on the generations of his family and the places they have come to call home in different but equally distressing ways.

While the descriptive brilliance of de Waal’s narration sets a certain distance between himself and his content, there is unquestionably a heightened sadness to the stories knowing they happened to de Waal’s family – stories which have only come to light through his research and travels.

While the netsuke are small and may seem an insignificant subject on which to write a book, they prove to be the foundation of an incredible tale. “People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.” – Edmund de Waal


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