One of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in the past year is Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Picador, 2010). It’s a spell-binding memoir centred around de Waal’s efforts to trace the history of a collection of netsuke (small, Japanese wood and ivory carvings) that he inherited from his great-uncle.
Although de Waal is a (world-famous) ceramic artist by trade, his writing is sublime. As you might expect, he has a knack for describing small details and especially the feel and heft of objects. Here are two short examples from early in the book:
Some of the netsuke are studies in running movement, so that your fingers move along a surface of uncoiling rope, or split water. Others have small congested movements that knot your touch: a girl in a wooden bath, a vortex of clam shells. Some do both, surprising you: an intricately ruffled dragon leans against a simple rock. You work your fingers round the smoothness and stoniness of the ivory to meet this sudden density of dragon….
When I am back in London I put one of these netsuke in my pocket for a day and carry it round. Carry is not quite the right word for having a netsuke in a pocket. It sounds too purposeful. A netsuke is so light and sall that it migrates and almost disappears amongst your keys and change. You simply forget that it is there. This was a netsuke of a very ripe medlar fruit, made out of chestnut wood in the late eighteenth century in Edo, the old Tokyo. In autumn in Japan you sometimes see medlars; a branch hanging on a wall of a temple or from a private garden into a street of vending machines is impossibly pleasing. My medlar is just about to go from ripeness to deliquescence. The three leaves at the top feel as if they would fall if they rubbed them between your fingers. The fruit is slightly unbalanced: it is riper on one side than the other Underneath, you can feel the two holes — one larger than the other — where the silk cord would run, so that the netsuke could act as a toggle on a small bag.
The Hare With Amber Eyes is one of those enchanting books that hooked me from the first page and made it hard for me to put aside until I’d finished it–at the same time, it’s so beautifully written that I wanted to read it as slowly as possible to savour each phrase and detail. That being so, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in memoir, creative nonfiction or just a great read, plain and simple. It’s also worth noting that de Waal has a photo gallery featuring some of his 264 netsuke online if you’re interested in seeing what they look like after reading about them.