“The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal (2010): An Intimate Odyssey Through Art, History, and Family Legacy


Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” published in 2010, stands as a masterful exploration of the intersection of art, history, and family heritage. This compelling memoir embarks on a journey that spans continents and centuries, intertwining the fate of a collection of netsuke—a set of small Japanese sculptures—with the tumultuous history of the Ephrussi family. In this extensive review, we delve into the intricate layers of de Waal’s narrative, examining its thematic richness, historical resonance, and the profound impact of this literary gem.

The Ephrussi Legacy:

Netsuke as Narrators:

At the heart of “The Hare with Amber Eyes” are 264 tiny Japanese sculptures known as netsuke. Passed down through generations of the Ephrussi family, these intricate objects serve as both witnesses and narrators of a storied family legacy. De Waal skillfully weaves the history of the netsuke with the broader tapestry of the Ephrussi family, creating an intimate and multi-generational narrative.

The Ephrussi Dynasty:

The Ephrussi family, originally a Jewish banking dynasty, rose to prominence in Odessa before spreading its influence across Europe. From the elegant salons of Paris to the opulent palaces of Vienna, the family’s fortunes and cultural impact were deeply intertwined with the socio-political currents of the times. “The Hare with Amber Eyes” becomes a testament to the resilience, adaptability, and fragility of familial bonds in the face of historical upheavals.

Themes of Identity and Belonging:

Rootedness and Displacement:

De Waal explores the theme of identity and belonging as he traces the Ephrussi family’s journey across continents. The narrative reflects on the tension between rootedness and displacement, particularly against the backdrop of the family’s forced migration and the challenges of assimilating into new cultural landscapes. The netsuke, as portable artifacts, serve as symbols of both continuity and dislocation.

Cultural Straddling:

The Ephrussi family’s engagement with multiple cultural spheres is a recurring theme. From their origins in Odessa to their assimilation into the cultural elite of Vienna, the family straddled diverse worlds. De Waal reflects on the complexity of navigating cultural identities, shedding light on the ways in which the Ephrussi legacy embraced and intersected with various cultural milieus.

The Art of Collecting:

Netsuke as Artifacts:

“The Hare with Amber Eyes” delves into the art of collecting, as the netsuke transcend their utilitarian origins to become revered artifacts. De Waal explores the transformative power of objects and the ways in which they carry layers of meaning across generations. The netsuke become a lens through which the author examines the broader cultural significance of collecting and the narratives embedded in material culture.

The Aesthetics of Belonging:

Through the narrative, de Waal contemplates the aesthetics of belonging and the role of objects in shaping familial identity. The Ephrussi family’s extensive art collection, including the netsuke, serves as a reflection of their cultural tastes, aspirations, and the evolving nature of connoisseurship. The author invites readers to ponder the ways in which art and artifacts contribute to a sense of belonging and continuity.

Vienna, Paris, and the Impact of War:

The Viennese Salon:

Vienna, with its rich cultural milieu and intellectual salons, becomes a focal point in the narrative. The Ephrussi family’s participation in the vibrant intellectual circles of pre-World War I Vienna is explored with depth and nuance. De Waal paints a vivid portrait of the city’s artistic and intellectual vibrancy, offering readers a glimpse into the Ephrussi family’s life in the midst of the Belle Époque.

World War II and Its Aftermath:

The impact of World War II casts a shadow over the Ephrussi legacy. De Waal chronicles the family’s experiences during the war, from the confiscation of their properties to the challenges of rebuilding their lives in the post-war era. The narrative reflects on the profound effects of war on individuals and families, underscoring the fragility of cultural heritage in times of conflict.

Narratives of Loss and Resilience:

Familial Tragedies:

“The Hare with Amber Eyes” doesn’t shy away from exploring the tragedies that befell the Ephrussi family. From the impact of anti-Semitic persecution to personal losses within the family, de Waal navigates the complexities of grief and resilience. The netsuke, surviving through tumultuous times, become silent witnesses to the family’s struggles and triumphs.

Resilience and Reconstruction:

The narrative also highlights the Ephrussi family’s resilience in the face of adversity. De Waal traces their efforts to rebuild their lives and reclaim a sense of normalcy after the disruptions of war. The author’s reflection on resilience adds a layer of hope to the narrative, emphasizing the enduring spirit of a family that faced profound challenges.

The Craft of Memoir:

Language and Elegance:

De Waal’s prose is marked by elegance and nuance. His language is evocative, transporting readers across time and space with a lyrical touch. The author’s meticulous attention to detail enhances the narrative, creating a sense of intimacy that allows readers to connect deeply with the characters and events.

Structured Narration:

The structure of “The Hare with Amber Eyes” adds to its literary appeal. De Waal seamlessly weaves between past and present, shifting perspectives and voices to create a rich tapestry of interconnected stories. The narrative unfolds with a carefully orchestrated pace, revealing layers of history and emotion in a way that captivates and resonates.

Critiques and Controversies:

Personal Focus:

Some critics argue that “The Hare with Amber Eyes” may be too narrowly focused on the Ephrussi family, potentially excluding broader historical contexts. While the narrative explores significant historical events, it is primarily centered around the personal experiences of the family and their connection to the netsuke.

Intimacy versus Objectivity:

De Waal’s personal connection to the Ephrussi family and the netsuke raises questions about the balance between intimacy and objectivity in memoir writing. Some readers may find the author’s close ties to the subjects to be both a strength and a potential source of bias in his portrayal of events and characters.

Legacy and Impact:

Literary Acclaim:

“The Hare with Amber Eyes” has garnered widespread critical acclaim, earning accolades for its literary merits and thematic depth. De Waal’s memoir has resonated with readers, academics, and critics alike, cementing its place as a poignant and enduring exploration of family, art, and history.

Cultural Exploration:

Beyond its literary success, the memoir has contributed to a broader cultural exploration of family histories and the impact of war on cultural heritage. “The Hare with Amber Eyes” has become a touchstone for discussions on the complexities of identity, belonging, and the ways in which personal narratives intersect with broader historical currents.


Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes” is a literary triumph that transcends the boundaries of traditional memoirs. Through the lens of the netsuke, the Ephrussi family, and his own intimate connection to the narrative, de Waal crafts a multi-dimensional exploration of art, history, and familial legacy. The memoir invites readers to embark on a profound journey through time and space, navigating the complexities of identity, cultural heritage, and the enduring resilience of the human spirit. “The Hare with Amber Eyes” is not merely a memoir; it is a work of art, a testament to the power of storytelling to illuminate the intricacies of the human experience.

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