The is the story of a family, a Jewish family from… well, all over Europe, the Ephrussi family. It tells the story of them across several generations, how they lived and operated, how they lived an opulent and wealthy life, a powerful family across Europe with banks in all the major capitals and fingers in every money making pie. Beginning with Charles, it describes their art collections, their holidays, the delight of having money, being good at making money, being close to painters, poets and artists, being patrons and collectors and a family who could, by speculating with grain and supply and untold wealth, effectively hold a country to ransom in the name of fairness and saving their people.
It is the story of being Jewish, wealthy Jewish, at the end of the 19th and early 20th century and in some ways, it describes perfectly how the Jews of their class provoked such jealousy and hatred. Anti-Semitism was hardly new, of course, but it is a catalogue of how to be disliked. They were a family who wanted to be ‘assimilated’, wanted to live as the French and the Austrians in the countries they moved to did, but they were set apart by not just success, but attitude, effort and their own unique ability to fashion a world around them.
It is also the story of a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese figures and how they passed from hand to hand, through the generations until they came to the hands of the author.
I found the early part of the book slowish – interesting, but slow. De Waal has a knack for words and brings the characters to life, he has a talent for painting a picture with his descriptions and in the early part I found myself googling for the painting mentioned and discovering that, yes, the one I had in my head from the bottom staircase at school, was indeed the one her meant. I learned a lot, not least why so many Monet pictures are Japanese influenced. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed following hisjourney in uncovering his past, but I wasn’t grabbed.
Then came, in Vienna, the first world war and that caught me; it keyed into something I knew about, bizarrely enough from Chalet School books and I was fascinated by this different view of a war I know about. I raced through it, keen to know they all survived.
And then… and then… with the inevitable crunch of knowing history… the Anschluss. He can’t hide his emotion and his horror at what happens as the Nazi’s march in with planned and premeditated attacked on the wealthy Jews happening within hours, was absolutely gut wrenching. It is, quite simply, horrific to read descriptions of a house you have come to know being pulled apart and people you care for, with all their quirks, being beaten and rendered to nothing. It touched part of me from other books I know and love; the Chalet School in Exile, the proud and desperate characters of those children’s books and the stoical fortitude of the Jewish characters in The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson. It was like lifting a rock you know well and finding the slime and creepy crawlies underneath that you knew about but pretended didn’t exist.
I read the second half of the book in a morning, I simply couldn’t leave them in the limbo of being half read. And The Hare with Amber Eyes went from 3 stars to 5 stars in no time at all.