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… ).
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.
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.
is an amazing picture of that period of our history.
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
de Waal uses this particular netsuke as an anchoring point for the
book, the book is all about collection: netsuke, small things, big
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).
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.