Saturday, 22 January 2011

Not just because he works down my road

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (Chatto & Windus: 2010) A biography of 264 small Japanese ornaments (netsuke), following them as they are passed through the generations of Edmund de Waal’s family. The story charts the netsuke (and the Ephrussi family) through 19th century Paris, 20th century Vienna, and 21st century Tokyo.

Edmund de Waal works down my road. His studio is behind the shop at the end of my street. So that was reason enough for me to pick up this book (and do a little small scale stalking to take a pic of the locked gate outside his studio).

The gate to Edmund de Waal's studio, behind the Co-Op at the end of our street. Maybe one day I'll meet him in the canned goods aisle...

He isn’t a novelist, or even a writer. He’s a potter. Yes, an incredibly accomplished, internationally renowned potter. But his art is first and foremost in ceramic rather than words.
But he achieved in this book something that hit me every bit as hard as any piece of art ever has.
Of everything I’ve ever read, I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times that an individual passage has made me well up and (though I’m a little reluctant to admit it) need to put the book down and give myself a minute before turning the page again. That happened with this book.
It’s a difficult thing to achieve, that one moment of huge emotion. Partly because books don’t move as quickly as TV or theatre or music, and they rely a great deal more on the imagination of the audience to bring them to life. A lot of groundwork needs to be laid, and a relationship struck between author and reader, before a true climax can be reached, otherwise they very often feel shallow and not worth a deep emotional reaction.
That is what I think de Waal has done so perfectly in this book. He makes you care about a collection of Japanese ornaments more than you would have thought possible. As he vagabonds (to use his phrase) around the world chasing their history, he allows you to feel that you’re also chasing their story in amongst the tangents on which he goes. He develops the story so well that you find yourself caring an inordinate amount about the netsuke without realising it’s happening.
For me, it culminated in a moment of high sentiment about two thirds of the way through the book.
Of course, everyone will react differently, depending on how you read it, in what state of mind you read it, where you read it, etc. You may well read this and not recognise the passage that hit me so profoundly. You may be taken by a different part of the book altogether.
But on the off chance that my reaction wasn’t a one off, and that I wasn’t just being a bit silly, I’m going to be recommending this to everyone I know. If it works for you like it worked for me, you’ll remember this book for a long time. If it doesn’t, it’s still an highly readable and fascinating real life tale that shines a light onto a familiar part of history from a different angle.
And so, The Hare with Amber Eyes gets the highest GBR yet...
I know. I loved it, so why not 10 GBR? Well, I have to leave some room for improvement. And it is a high 8, after all.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

That sounds like my kind of book, I'll certainly be adding it to my reading list