I was very excited to learn that August’s choice for my book group, The Riverside Readers, was The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. I’d seen lots of glowing reviews of this book and it was the winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award. But I didn’t actually realise that there was a Japanese element to this story about de Waal’s family traced through the journey of his great-great uncle Charles’ collection of 264 netsukes through time and place.

I didn’t really know what to expect, maybe a history of netsuke, a family memoir, but it exceeded all my expectations because it went right to the core of recent European and Japanese history, taking in fin de siècle Paris and Vienna, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, post-war Japan under the American Occupation and finally back to Odessa, where de Waal’s family first rose to prominence. So much happened in just over the 100 years since Charles Ephrussi began his collection; fortunes grew on wheat fields and were lost in war, the family spread out into Vienna and Paris and were then scattered as the Nazis gained power, finally settling in Tunbridge Wells with only de Waal’s great Uncle Iggy settling in Japan with the netsukes.

The Hare with Amber Eyes isn’t just a family memoir, it is also a history of Jewish migration. What struck me forcefully was how on the one hand, the Ephrussis, rivals to the Rothschilds, were celebrated persons who mingled with the aristocracy and the cream of the art world and yet they were skimming the surface of anti-Semitism which was persistently threatening to explode. This isn’t anything that is new to me, I studied history at school, read books, watched films, seen the reels of hollow-cheeked survivors. And yet, it was pretty painful reading. It didn’t help that I watched The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas (a beautiful and tragic film) on telly as I was finishing this book, but I can only imagine the pain and sadness with which de Waal must have sifted through his family archives.

One of the amazing things is how it shows the sweep of history. How everything can be won and lost at a stroke of fate. And how people are trying to run away from what is set for them, make mistakes, and yet somehow survive. De Waal’s writing is engaging and this was a relatively easy book to read (a bit like watching Who Do You Think You Are which I love). What I wasn’t expecting was how emotional this book made me feel. This isn’t a dry and academic history book or a memoir with lists of names. It’s one man’s journey to find out where he comes from. And I really liked how he tied this with the cultural fashions and objects that meant so much to his family.

We see instances of Charles Ephrussi’s friendships with writers and artists in Paris such as Proust (who was Charles’ secretary!), Degas and Renoir (who painted Charles in his Luncheon of the Boating Party!). How the scandalous and troubling Dreyfus Affair that divided France affected these friendships because of the Ephrussi’s Jewish connections. How their Viennese cousins, Victor Ephrussi and his family, dealt with the post-WWI recession, the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rise of Hitler. How de Waal’s grandmother, Elizabeth, Victor’s daughter, tried to break free from convention and entered university and how after the war she strived to locate her family and possessions, many of which were never returned by the Austrian government. I was surprised at how angry I felt at the injustice of what befell the Jewish people and the powerlessness with which they had to rebuild their lives. And I am glad that de Waal wrote this book with love, passion and sadness for his children.

Do also check out Kim’s review of the book too.