A tale of survival: The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

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Though The Hare with the Amber Eyes received critical acclaim, several negative reviews put me off it when it first came out. However, recently, when two friends told me they were reading it and enjoying it within a few weeks of each other, I decided to give it a read. One friend said that she’d been up late into the night, unable to put it down. I know exactly how she felt; it had the same effect on me.

This nonfiction book, written like a novel, tells the story of a family through its Japanese netsuke collection. It reminds me of Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’ and W.G. Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’, both books I loved. The netsuke collection at the centre of the story was initially purchased by a cousin of De Waal’s great grandfather, a french connoisseur named Charles Ephrussi, who then sent the collection to Austria to Edmund’s great-grandfather Victor as a wedding present. The collection survived the horrors of the second World War and were eventually discovered and introduced to the author by his great uncle in Japan a few years ago.

As a Jew, I often find books about the Holocaust disturbing, such that I at times approach the subject with fear and reservations. However, I am so pleased I read this book. Luckily, de Waal’s family largely survived the Holocaust, managing to flee to safety (although some did perish). De Waal does not go into detail about the atrocities in the camps. What he does examine in some depth, and incredibly well, is the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. Through the netsuke collection, he tracks the survival of the de Waal family.

This is both an exceptionally well-written book and an important one. Not only did it educate me on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, it also made me incredibly grateful for the support and safety the Jews have received in England. As a child I often wondered why we’d always say a prayer for the Queen in synagogue services, but now having read this book, I understand just how fragile the Jews’ survival has been and I am exceptionally grateful for the asylum Jews received in this country. Please read this book; like the netsuke, it’s a work of great beauty and of solid importance.

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