20 October 2015

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, UK, 2010

The first word that comes to me is overwhelming, and the word stays there for quite some time, blocking out almost everything else. Eventually, I get my thoughts together: the book is beautifully written, and the research is (well, there's that word again… ).

Photo of de Waal from
The overwhelming bit is not only the research, it is also the long list of artists and writers and royalty and famous people who not only rubbed shoulders with de Waal's ancestors but were also important parts of their lives. At times, especially in the beginning, it all becomes too much. I really wondered if I was interested in hearing about de Waal's relatives in such a detailed manner.

However, at the same time, it was very interesting to be given such personal perspectives on historical periods and people who are so intimately connected with all the different art and literature movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the book moves on and the characters become more and more entwined with the history of the period, it becomes more engaging and more readable. The name-dropping begins to make more sense, and I even find that I am more sympathetically inclined towards some of the characters.

It is an amazing picture of that period of our history.

The hare with amber eyes of the title is a netsuke, one of 624. Netsuke are very small Japanese sculptures, usually rounded, that were first created in the seventeenth century. As Japanese dress of the time had no pockets, people would hang a small container on a cord from the sash of the garment, and the netsuke were used to loop through the cord and fasten it to the sash. Eventually, they became less necessary from a practical point of view and more treasured as a collector's item.

Although de Waal uses this particular netsuke as an anchoring point for the book, the book is all about collection: netsuke, small things, big things, people…

Towards the end of the book, de Waal writes (possibly paraphrasing Proust, who was one of the many literary figures in the book): “Even when one is no longer attached to things, it's still something to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn't grasp… “ (pp.346-347) and, finally, almost at the end of the book, he writes: “ It is not just things that carry stories with them, stories are a kind of thing too. Stories and objects share something, a patina.” (p.349).

At first glance, the book may appear to be about things, but it is actually about people and how people and things and stories are all inscrutably woven together to create that which we call life.

06 October 2015

Hus vid världens ände by Åke Edwardson, Sweden, 2012

Although a number of books in Edwardson's Inspector Erik Winter series have been translated to English, I do not believe that Hus vid världens ände (The House at the End of the World) has yet been translated. Like all the other books in the series, it is set in Sweden's second-largest city, Gothenburg and revolves around Erik Winter, a drinker of good whisky and a lover of the American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

The background is detailed and accurately painted: anyone with any knowledge of Gothenburg can easily recognize the streets and the buildings, visualize the parks, smell the markets. In this book, Winter spends some of his time in Costa del Sol, Spain, and it is obvious that Edwardson has walked the same streets that Winter walks and that he has seen the same buildings and felt the same sun on his face.

There were not supposed to be any more books in the series; the last book (Den sista vintern or The Last Winter), published 2008, was to have been just that – the last book. But now Winter is back, unable to tear himself away from the job of solving crime. A couple of his more ambitious colleagues may have possibly wished that he had stayed away; yet, in the end, they are all able, if begrudgingly, to appreciate both his expertise and his experience.

Photo of Edwardsson from
The crime – the gruesome slaying of three people – hits the reader in the very first pages of the book. There seems to be no motive and very few clues; suspects are pulled in for questioning; the reader sides first with one possible theory and then with another. There are so many possibilities – anyone could have done it.

As well as being able to present credible characters with both strength and weaknesses, Edwardson also has the ability to create, and then build on, suspense, letting drop very small clues, while subtly offering several different scenarios. This book, like all the ones that have gone before it, is intelligently and carefully written; the reader knows that the all the small pieces of the puzzle will eventually reveal the answer – there will be no completely unattached surprises at the end of the book.

If you are interested in giving him a go, the first Erik Winter book in the series is Sun and Shadow. You may be pleasantly surprised.