When Edmund de Waal inherits 264 wood and ivory carvings, the Japanese netsuke enchant him so much that he carries the tactile pieces with him everywhere (in rotation) in his pockets and becomes obsessed with them. He sets out to trace their history and how they came to be in his family.
His wealthy clan turn out to have a remarkable history that is both engaging and, at times, incredibly moving. The family were originally wheat barons from Odessa, who moved to Paris and became patrons of the arts in the pivotal time of The Impressionists. The artists that the family supported eventually turned against them in the anti Semitic climate; their struggle to survive this disloyalty and treachery tells us much about human nature, and human endurance. We see 19th century Europe (and particularly fin-de-siècle Paris) in all of its glory; and get glimpses too of the political ugliness that led towards the two World Wars of the 20th century.
De Waal is a sculpture by trade and he fashions his sentences beautifully, but in a way that only folk with English as a second language seem to do; there's an exotic lyricism that is addictive. It's all strangely compelling, I love the line, "repetition wears things smooth"; an apt summation of the idea that history is written by the victors. Edmund does get up himself a bit, he's very sincere and earnest about everything, but hey, I've been there myself; we do care about the things that we... care about. And Edmund cares about his family and their story; a story that's essentially one of the legacy of inheritance, the responsibilities of family and the potency of the inanimate object; how we can invest them with energies beyond their earthly form and carry them forward with us as emblems and signifiers of who we are, and hope to become.
I know what I'll be doing with that book token now...
Have a look at Edmund (who's just taken his anorak off) with his netsuke below and then listen to him reading from the book.