This book is about so many things…family memoir, inheritance, art history, people and culture, real life adventure, the sadness of war, travelogue…. all wrapped into a very compelling story for non-fiction. Before picking up this book I had never heard of netsuke so I really learned something about these intriguing sculptures and all of the places and times in which this particular collection lived.
The story begins with the author’s Uncle Iggie and his 264 netsuke on display in a glass vitrine in Japan. Then it goes back and traces how these items were acquired and the remarkable story of the collection and its owners. De Waal (who is an accomplished potter himself), in telling about the amazing survival of this unique collection, lovingly crafts an amazing history of his family. He is eloquent when he talks about the fascinating ways in which they and also we, acquire things and how we pass them along to others or future generations. Veronica Horwell puts this aspect of the book beautifully, in her review in The Guardian (Sat. 26 June 2010). “If you have ever cleared a house after a death you will recognise this feeling, that each handmade thing matters of itself, even when mortality casts it loose sequentially from maker and owners; the sense that responsibility for the present of an object is also a duty to its past, and an obligation to its onward transmission.”
Even though there are many pictures and maps in the book, oddly there are no pictures of the netsuke themselves except for the ‘hare with the amber eyes’ on the cover. De Waal does describe some of them and he does such a good job, I can see them in my mind’s eye. Perhaps it was his intention to allow the reader to imagine. However, they can be seen on de Waal’s website and my guess is that with the resounding success of this book, future publishings will include some photos of these amazing sculptures, none of which is bigger than a matchbox. I think my favourite is the turtles. I wish I could hold one in my hand or keep one in my pocket too. They are unusual and beautiful. Here is the link to the website: