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The disadvantage to writing a book review every day is that it means that I do not get much processing time. If I schedule things carefully, and read my book early, I can get a few hours to think about it, but often life intervenes (it's amazing how people want one to do things during daylight). I cannot always predict in advance what is going to need a particular sort of time and thought and care, when a book will require some turning over in my brain before I can even start to get my thoughts in order and make sentences. Some books one can review by starting to type, and some not.

It is five-thirty in the morning. I have been reading Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes since half-past midnight. I would love to go away and think about this book for a week. Then I might begin to be able to tell you how good this is, and why.

On the other hand, I suppose the resultant review might lose something in immediacy. I do not think that is sufficient, but I guess it is something.

So: my apologies. I cannot live up to this book. It is too good for me to know how to write about right now. I will try. It will not be right. I'm sorry.

Edmund de Waal is a potter by profession, and, I have heard, a good one, with work in museums. He has inherited, from his great-uncle by way of his great-uncle's husband, a collection of two hundred and sixty-four Japanese netsuke pieces that has been in his family since the 1870s. This book is a history, a story of the collection in his family, or his family around the collection, and the world around that.

I can tell you in his own words what he is trying not to do, and what sort of book he is trying to make:

... I really don't want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss...

It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Époque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.

And I'm not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago. And I am not interested in thin. I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers-- hard and tricky and Japanese-- and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and what they thought about it-- if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.

Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return.

And that is exactly what he does, he builds that exactitude and he succeeds in every way. Because in order to make those rooms come alive, and to make the people come alive who lived in them, so that he can guess at the relationship those people had to these objects, he goes and does the kind of exacting, thorough, loving research that most historians wish they could live up to, and then he gives you his insanely wealthy, intelligent, Jewish, multi-lingual generations-back family and they walk off the page. This is the only work of its kind I can think of that is equally good on every time period and place it covers, which is two continents and more than a century.

And because of who his family were, and where they were, and the amount of money they had, this is also a very particular kind of history, one of the world of people one has heard of, the world of high society and the artists and thinkers around the edges of that. They knew the wealthy and the great: they were the wealthy and the great, and interested in the arts, and they knew everybody.

They were also, as I mentioned, Jewish. This is a book that engages fully with the anti-Semitism that was going on, in all its time periods, as it must.

It also, and this is rare and wondrous, engages with the orientalism, the various crazes for Japanese art, the ways that the sculptures and the sculptors and the country of Japan have been represented and misrepresented over the years. Because that needs to be thought about, too, when you're holding one of these objects.

It is a joyous book, a joy to read, and it made me cry for two separate reasons within the same paragraph, because it also has in it all the pain that was, of course, there. This is a book that can make you rage against history as you already know it to have happened, against what you already know is inevitable.

I need to stop writing about this. I am not doing well enough at it. This is one of those reviews that makes me so frustrated with myself, because this is not right, I am not saying this well enough, I am not making it sound like the incomparable, the specific and exact and weighted book it is, the real place it takes up in my brain, the way it widens out the world. This review should be giving you this precise book, because the author of it demanded no less of himself. I am not doing that, and I do not know how to do that. I should be silent where I cannot say the right thing. Read the book. It is a masterpiece. It is the best thing I have read this year.


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March 2017

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