Category: Non-Fiction/Family History – Paperback: 368 pages – Publisher: Vintage Books (Random House) – Source: Charity shop
First Published: 2010
264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined.
From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siecle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century.
A Sample Quote: ‘All these things that Charles collected are objects that need a connoisseur’s eye, all are things that speak of knowledge, history, lineage, of collecting itself. Unpick this list of treasures – tapestries woven after Raphael cartoons, sculpture after Donatello – and you can feel that Charles has begun to internalise how art unfolds through history. Back in Paris he donates a rare fifteenth-century medallion of Hippolytus torn apart by wild horses to the Louvre. I think I can begin to hear the young art historian talking to visitors. You sense the notebook, not just the money.’
This book caught my eye because the title seemed familiar, probably from reading reviews on other book blogs. Pulling the book off the shelf I was snagged by the fact it has the most tactile cover, there’s some sort of coating on it and with my eyes closed it feels rather like leather. When I was making my pile of books for the 24 hour readathon recently, it had to be included. I picked it up around Hour 14.
The writing has a wispy quality to it that’s quite a turn off for me but the subject was intriguing enough to get me past the 50 page mark and then curiosity for the story’s resolution kept me turning pages. To be honest though, after finishing it, I feel a bit cheated.
It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine but the subject of the book doesn’t really match up with the blurb at all. What’s sold as a tale of discovering family history and collecting antiques is actually an account of a very rich, extremely well documented family being oppressed in 1890s France and 1930s Vienna because they are Jewish. There’s very little about the netsuke themselves in the book. That’s not what I signed up for at all and the mis-sale is entirely unnecessary – I am sure the book would have found a market even without the hint of Japanese treasures. Bah.
My irritation at the mismatch between the actual story of anti-semitism and aristocratic lives in Paris and Vienna and its misleading blurb and beautiful cover photography of netsuke is getting in the way of my actual feelings about the book on its own merits. To be fair I am going to review this as a 5/10, I suspect if I had scored it at the weekend it’d have been a lower figure.