The Hare mentioned in the title is one of 264 netsuke; tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings which Edmund De Waal inherits when his great uncle Iggie dies in Japan.
The little carvings fascinate Edmund and he decides to look into their history. What was supposed to be a project taking no more than a few months turns into two years of research into his family’s history, from before the netsuke were first acquired until the moment he installs them in a glass vitrine in his own home.
The story starts in when Edmund’s ancestors, the Ephussi’s still live in Odessa where they are successful grain merchants. Building on their success, the family spread out to Vienna, Paris and London establishing a bank which soon became very successful as well.
It is in Paris in the 1870’s, where all things Japanese are highly fashionable, that Victor Ephussi buys the 264 Netsuke and displays them in a glass vitrine.
When a cousin of Victor’s, Charles gets married in Vienna in 1899 Victor sends the carvings as a wedding present. They stay in Vienna until after the Second World War, in which they manage to stay out of Nazi hands thanks to a faithful servant, at which time they travel to Edmund’s uncle Iggie in Tokyo via England, only to end up back in England when Edmund inherits them.
The story of the Netsuke in itself is fascinating, but this book gives the reader a whole lot more than that. This is also the story of the rise and fall of a Jewish family, of anti-Semitism in Europe and a story about art and fashion.
Parts of the story are charming and unexpected, like the fact that Victor Ephussi can be seen in the background of Renoir’s famous “Luncheon of the Boating Party” painting.
Other parts are more shocking, especially those relating to the hate of Jews which was very prevalent in Europe and evident in Paris during Victor’s time and in Vienna long before Hitler’s rise to power and the Anschluss.
This may be a non-fiction book, but I had to remind myself of that at times. I got completely caught up in the Ephussi family history and at times turned the pages as if I were reading a thriller, wanting to make sure that the family would be alright.
The reason the book scored 4.5 stars is that at some points the descriptions of art work went a bit too deep for me, who has no real knowledge of or interest in art history. Other than that I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story and is interested in history. This is a fascinating read!