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March 2011
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bookworm Bookworm
By John Andrews

Last month I gave readers a real treat of a book: A Question of Loyalties by Allan Massie, which I hope those who took up my suggestion enjoyed as much as I did.

This month you are all in for a similar treat. The Hare with the Amber Eyes; a hidden inheritance, by Edmund de Waal and published by Vintage is a rich tale, part treasure hunt and part family saga. Winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award and endless acclaimed reviews, it is an outstanding example of accessible scholarship.

The book concerns 264 Japanese exotic wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox, each easily held in the palm of one hand and exquisitely made with skill and loving care, sometimes over years rather than weeks or months. Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined.

From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siècle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, de Waal traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of the fabulously rich Ephrussi family, against the backdrop of a tumultuous century.

Edmund de Waal is a potter by trade and in the book he evokes beautifully the tactile qualities of these tiny Japanese carvings as he carries them in his pockets to Paris, Vienna and Odessa, then back to Japan. He traces his ancestors the Ephrussis to their splendid houses in the rue de Monceau in Paris and to their enormous Palace Ephrussi along the Schottengasse in Vienna. We are treated to wonderful descriptions of their lifestyles,
 marriages, lovers and enormous wealth until, on Sunday 28th  June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg Empire, is assassinated in Sarajevo by a young Serbian nationalist, and the world changes for ever.
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