Hazel McHaffie

Juggling balls

Reviews for my adult novel, Inside of Me, are slowly trickling in, and it is, as ever, extremely gratifying to get such wonderful endorsements from people whose opinions I value: ‘well researched’, ‘full of empathy’, ‘a gripping story, full of unexpected and emotional twists and turns’, ‘absorbing’, ‘complex psychological issues, handled with a light touch’, ‘raises challenging questions without simplifying the issues or offering any easy answers’. Wow! Thanks, folks!

It would be all too easy to get impatient waiting for the rest of these busy reviewers to respond. After all the delays caused by my illness, I just want to get this book out there. But frustration would be a serious waste of energy, so I’ve turned my mind and pen to a totally different kind of writing: the story/play I write for my grandchildren every year for Christmas. (The eldest is now almost sixteen so the level of sophistication rises exponentially year by year; getting closer and closer to adult fiction.) And guess what: it’s been positively therapeutic! A delightfully refreshing change from looking deep into my soul, and worrying about my own body image and identity.

Costumes in the makingI can’t share anything of the theme or substance of this year’s production with you, lest I bring down the wrath of the entire family on my head – it has to remain a closely guarded secret (ie. known only to me) until the actual day. But what I can say is that it’s currently 16,000+ words long, involves the making/assembling of nineteen different costumes, and the collection of a whole variety of props. And it will require a complete makeover of parts of our house closer to the event. Enough to keep me well out of mischief from now till Christmas. By the way, if anyone has a spare mortar board or a shaggy grey wig and beard do please get in touch!

In between I package gifts and write letters for the most ordinary humdrum aspects of the season. Keeps my feet firmly on the ground. Oh, and of course, watch eagerly for any correspondence from the said critics.

Christmas gifts

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Cursed inheritance

As I promised last week, good news this time!

Eight or nine years ago I chose Motor Neurone Disease for the degenerative condition journalist Adam O’Neill is battling with in my novel, Right to Die; Right to Diea disease that will strike right at the heart of his being and his aspirations. So I was fascinated to find Lisa Genova chose Huntington’s Disease for her tough Boston cop Joe O’Brien in Inside the O’Briens, a disease that stops his career dead in its tracks and forces him to face the horrors of genetic inheritance.

Both MND and HD are frightening, crippling, fatal conditions that rob the person of control and dignity. Getting inside the mind and body of either an Adam or a Joe is very scary stuff. So, having been there myself, I was extra curious to see how someone else tackled the ethical minefields and personal challenges associated with such a scenario; especially someone with Genova’s credentials.

This time she has inserted occasional tracts of medical explanation about the condition into her novel to inform the reader, positioning herself as a scientist; but for me her real strength lies in her ability to describe the illness from the inside. She puts the humanity into the science, compassion into the clinical facts. The insidious onset before policeman Joe even suspects the truth. The sudden weird and inexplicable bursts of anger. An inability to process instructions. Finding it impossible to keep legs and feet still on parade … in police exercises … in a restaurant. And then, once he’s diagnosed, the inexorable progression. The involuntary indiscriminate throws – punches, food, cutting words – that label him as drunk, deranged or dangerous to passers by. The red rages that cause his wife Rosie’s black eyes, terrible destruction in the walls of the family home. The fear that won’t let him ever hold his grandson. The depression that makes him constantly check his gun is still loaded and primed.

We peer into his past when Joe recalls his mother’s antsy wild black eyes as she lay in a mental institution for years; condemned to be known as an incurable drunk. The questions hitting him now nearly forty years later. How could she have remained an alcoholic in the hospital all those years? Why had his father stopped taking Joe and his sister to visit her? Why had his strong dad wept like a baby? What lessons did she actually teach him?

The author powerfully captures the brutal reality through the eyes of the rest of the family too:

Inside the O'Briens‘Huntington’s isn’t the absence of moving, thinking, and feeling. This disease is not a transcendental state of bliss. It’s a complete freak show – ugly, constant, unproductive movements, uncontrollable rage, unpredictable paranoia, obsessive thinking.’

We see the dawning terror in his wife’s eyes. Her silences. Her withdrawals. Her desperate stroking of the crucifix round her neck, the beads of her rosary. Her binning of the symbols of her ingrained Catholic faith.

Then there’s the terrible implications for their four beloved offspring. Vegan yoga teacher, Katie, living life in ‘peace, health and harmony’. Ballerina Meghan, limbs and body and mind all supple, beautiful, desirable. Firefighter JJ, taking his health and fitness for granted, using it to save others; preparing for imminent parenthood with his wife Colleen. Rebel Patrick, sewing his wild oats liberally, experimenting with life. Each one of them carrying a fifty percent chance of harbouring this cursed disease. Nothing can change that fact. Nothing can halt, slow or reverse this terrible thing. Joe, their father, is powerless to protect them. Indeed it was he, their supposed protector, who handed on the poisoned chalice in the first place. And now he must stand on the sidelines and watch them all battling with the impact of their cruel inheritance. Only they individually can decide whether to take the test, if they want to know the truth lurking unseen in their own DNA. JJ and Colleen may not even choose on behalf of their baby son.

How should Joe deal with his burdens? Is there a way out? Should he take it? How can he best support his children? Should the youngsters go for testing? What are the implications if they do/don’t? Would I want to know?

I love books that are at once a gripping read and challenge me to think deeply – especially in the field of medical ethics. And even though I’ve been into these questions already myself as an author, I thought this book was brilliant and awarded it five stars. Beautifully written, compassionate, perceptive, engrossing, provocative. Genova at the top of her game again. Seems I prefer her as neuroscientist-turned-novelist rather than simply novelist. That could well be something to do with my own position on the spectrum; nevertheless the experience of reading Love Anthony and Inside the O’Briens one after the other, has taught me something of value for my writing too.

So, Genova has already tackled Alzheimer’s, Left Neglect, autism and Huntington’s. What next? MND, she says – or as she calls it ALS. Ahah! I await that novel with bated breath!

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Neuroscientist or novelist

You’ve probably heard of Lisa Genova. She’s a neuroscientist by background but now also a fantastic novelist.

Her debut novel, Still Alice a fascinating insight into the mind of a young professor with Alzheimer’s – became a sensation and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 2014. I gave it a four star rating when I reviewed it on my blog and when I chose it for discussion at a Readers’ Day. A brilliant and perceptive book.

Less well known is Genova’s second book, Left Neglected, which I also reviewed on this blog some time ago while I was ill. I loved this one too and it resonated with my own experiences of identity and disability. It’s insightful and lyrical and thought-provoking.

Genova novelsSo I just had to buy her other novels: Love Anthony and Inside the O’Briens. I’ve now read both of them but come to different conclusions about them. This week I want to talk about Love Anthony.

It tells the story of two women: Olivia and Beth. Both have disintegrating family lives; both are left without husbands; both adopt new careers.

Olivia Donatelli’s dreams are shattered when her beautiful little boy Anthony fails to develop normally, fails to speak, fails to engage with her emotionally. Aged 3 he is diagnosed with autism. Aged 8 he is dead. The strain and toll wreck her marriage and deplete all her reserves and resources. She buries herself in remote Nantucket Island until, through her photography, she finds new direction and new answers.

Beth Ellis is the mother of three girls who has just discovered her husband’s infidelity. Struggling to find a new identity she turns to creative writing and begins to write a first person story about a boy with autism. Sitting in the same seat in the same library she feels she is somehow channelling a haunting voice.

Love AnthonyOh dear. I’m afraid this book didn’t live up to my expectations. Neither the writing nor the plot nor the characters are a patch on Still Alice. It doesn’t do for autism what Alice did for Alzheimer’s. And I really didn’t like or believe in the story Beth wrote – the narrative voice became tedious and improbable. So I was startled to read Genova’s own declaration: ‘With Still Alice and Left Neglected, I was a neuroscientist writing a novel. With Love Anthony, I became a novelist.’ Hmmm, is there a cautionary tale there for me?

Tune in next week for much better news about the other one, Inside the O’Briens.


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Mental health break

I grew up in an age and environment where hard work was lauded and idle hands frowned upon. It’s a hard shackle to shed. But intellectually now, I know that relaxation is very much part of mental health.

So off I went, with a clear conscience (well, almost!), to enjoy a few days in the Lake District soaking up the beauty and peace in this most spectacular of autumns. And quite deliberately not thinking up anything clever/entertaining/challenging/stimulating/wise for this blog. So you too can take a wee sabbatical this week.



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Fact and fiction

MslexiaDid you know that some 184,000 books are published in the UK every year, the vast majority appearing without fanfare and sinking without trace? And yet writing a book involves a massive investment of time, energy, emotion, heartache and money.

We low-ranking authors can easily feel overlooked and undervalued, but news in the publishing world put things into a healthier perspective for me at a time when I needed a boost of confidence (courtesy of my writerly journals: Mslexia and The Author.

1. ‘Publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly,’ says the CEO of the Society of Authors. And many pretty big names have demonstrated that even they feel disenchanted. A whole raft of them have recently switched to new publishing houses in a search for fresh enthusiasm and better sales figures: Kate Mosse, Harlan Coben, Paulo Coelho, Patricia Cornwell, Michelle Paver, Val McDermid to name but a few.

Take-home message: Great success is no passport to contentment.

2. Nor is rejection reserved for the few. It’s well known that even world famous authors have received crushing letters from publishers and agents. Latest offerings to add to the list: Louisa M Alcott was advised to ‘stick to teaching.’ Anne Frank’s Diary got ‘The girl doesn’t have a special perception which would lift the book above the curiosity level.CS Lewis was turned down 800 times before he published anything! Egg on faces comes to mind.

Take-home message: Don’t be cast down by rejection.

The Author journals3. According to ALCS research, the median sum earned by professional authors in 2013 was a beggarly £4,000. £4,000!! (Aspiration point: The top 5% earn in excess of £100,000; the top 1% more than £450,000 a year.) No wonder then that the number of full-time authors relying solely on earnings from writing has gone down from 40% in 2007 to 11.5%. Ouch! But in actual fact, there are many writers who feel they write best when they keep their feet firmly in the real, everyday world of work. Tick!

Take-home message: Real life activities can help keep you grounded.

4. I’m sure all authors adopt several methods for capturing ideas and brainwaves before they slip away – from having a simple pencil and notebook beside the bath tub to fancy electronic apps and fads in every pocket. Remembering is crucial … or is it? Novelist cum musician cum Latin teacher William Sutton argues that slavish notes can result in slavish writing. Sometimes ‘the capricious alchemy of the unreliable memory’ and healthy distance can transmute leaden prose into something much more volatile, airy and appealing. Phew! That’s all right then!

Take-home message: No need to get paranoid about recording every idea.

5. I guess we all worry about the structure of our books. Is it balanced? Does it sag in the middle or fizzle lamely at the end? Will it grip a reader? Well, an established literary consultant, Helen Bryant, maintains that a novel’s structure should sit within a classic three act graph: Act 1 centres on the inciting incident and core problem; Act 2 should include at least three rising tension peaks; Act 3 brings the main plot lines to a climax and resolves them. So, with some trepidation I plotted my latest novel, Inside of Me, on a similar graph, and what d’you know, it complies with this framework! Tick!

Take-home message: Keep reading the literary journals!

6. More than 50% of both primary school children and over-65s read every day! Wahey. Time to tap into that market in a more deliberate way. Let’s start with the U3A

Take-home message: Target the right audiences.

7. In June this year The Reading Agency published a review on The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. Its key findings included the following: reading is closely linked to understanding of our own identity; it can impact on our relationships with others; it increases empathy; helps with relaxation; helps develop knowledge; helps mental health. Yes!

Take-home message: Never undervalue the wide ranging benefits of reading.

Sanguine again

There we go; spirits lifted immeasurably. Onwards and upwards.


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Portable magic!

Famous American author, Stephen King, has described books as ‘a uniquely portable magic’ – and he wasn’t referring to the news this week that inmates are smuggling books into prison laced with hallucinogenic drugs! No, books have a unique potential and power to open up worlds and horizons and opportunities. They can transport us into another dimension altogether. They can influence our mental wellbeing, our opinions, our relationships, our empathy with others. British novelist and journalist, Matt Haig, goes further: he maintains that books saved his life, rescuing him from severe depression.

With that in mind, I look up at my own shelves and suddenly the feeling of you-should-tidy-these becomes enough-to-keep-me-sane-for-decades.

One wall of my libraryYes, OK, I know I should tidy and sort them, but somehow reading them always seems so much more attractive and urgent. And I am doing a kind of sort – transferring the to-be-read to the now-read sections.

As part of my mental tidy up I decided to return to a familiar author and complete her set of novels. They fall into the same kind of genre as Jodi Picoult: family relationships, moral quandaries, suspense, secrets – on the face of it a similar vein to my own kind of writing. And as you know I like to keep up with ‘the competition’.

Diane Chamberlain is the lady in question. With a background in social work and psychotherapy, she certainly understands how people tick and I like her light touch; she doesn’t labour the psychology or force information upon the reader. But what I didn’t know until now is that she goes a stage further than most writers: she sometimes puts herself into a light trance to get inside the heads and hearts of her characters … Wow! Risky stuff, but a unique take on living inside one’s characters! And perhaps it’s that awareness and sensitivity that come through in her novels.

Before the StormBefore the Storm tells the story of the Lockwood family struggling to deal with postnatal depression, tragic deaths, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and betrayals. Because of the damage to his brain caused by his mother’s drinking, 15-year-old Andy’s take on the world is simple and black-and-white. Then one day he gets trapped in a serious fire in a building full of teenagers. Somehow he manages to use his initiative and guide other children to safety through a window in the men’s toilets, and to his naive delight he’s hailed as a hero.  But it’s not all happy ever after. Several people die in the fire, some are terribly damaged, whole families are wrecked. What’s more, adulation turns to suspicion and hatred when Andy is suspected of setting the fire himself. The Lockwood family regroup, Andy’s sister, mother and uncle join forces to keep him out of prison, but rescue comes in the end from a most challenging source. Guilt and grief abound. Told through the voice of all four main protagonists it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read.  Just how far would I go to protect my children? How well do I really know them?

Chamberlain novelsSecrets She Left Behind is a sequel to Before the Storm, but fear not, I won’t reveal any spoilers to the earlier novel. In Secrets Chamberlain cleverly unravels other dimensions in the lives of the characters at the heart of the story about the devastating fire. Central to the plot is Sara Weston, whose son Keith was terribly burned in the blaze, whose best friend Laurel has every reason to shun her, and whose poverty stands in sharp contrast to the wealth and privilege of the Lockwoods. Now Sara has mysteriously vanished leaving a raft of secrets behind her. There’s a huge over-weighting of deceit in this sequel, with a rather improbable number of people leading secret lives; relationships and dynamics distorted by the cycle of revelations; and individual members struggling to come to terms with the past and create new futures – all in the claustrophobic confines of a tiny island community. Boundaries between good and bad, perpetrator and victim, become blurred. And again the reader is left questioning: Just how far would I go to forgive those who ruined my life? How would I react to betrayal and rejection?

I must confess I was expecting a very different denouement in Secrets She Left Behind. That, however, would have been a different book. Nevertheless imagining the ending I would have given it gave my writing-brain a healthy work out.

The Shadow WifeThe Shadow Wife tells the story of Joelle D’Angelo aka Shanti Joy Angel. Divorced and childless, Joelle is grieving for her dearest friend, Mara, who has suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage after giving birth. Shocked to her core, Joelle turns to the only other person who understands her pain, Mara’s husband, Liam, for comfort. But gradually their relationship changes and after one illicit night, Joelle finds herself pregnant. Determined not to compound her mistake, Joelle decides she must leave her home and job as a social worker and begin a new life elsewhere, but before she goes she makes one last ditch effort to help Mara recover. She turns to Carlynn Kling, a lady with mysterious powers of healing who saved Joelle’s own life when she was a baby. The interweaving of two timelines in this book is cleverly handled and the unravelling of the past sits perfectly with the present. A good read and a tender tale of love and loss and loyalty. Could I live with the choices these characters faced? How would I react if my parent rejected me? Or if I fell in love with my best friend’s husband? Or if a tiny lie could transform my future immeasurably? I don’t know. But this book has challenged me to think about my own moral code and my boundaries.

There, that’s the Diane Chamberlain section complete and re-filed.



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Final changes and additions

I’m at the stage with Inside of Me where we’re waiting for reviews and final comments to come in before the whole package can be put together. It would be all too easy to champ at the bit but I’m using the time to catch up with a hotch-potch of jobs. One of those is checking out ‘the competition’ – aka reading other novels that fall into the ‘medical ethical’ bracket.

Two books overlap very directly with my own.

Dear ThingDear Thing by Julie Cohen is about surrogate pregnancy – like my Double Trouble Double Troublepublished six years earlier; although I hasten to add I’m not suggesting Cohen plagiarised my ideas! Indeed, her book became a Summer Book Club choice with Richard and Judy in 2014.

In a nutshell: Romily is a scientist and single Mum with a precociously clever daughter. Ben and Claire are her best friends but they’re unable to have a child of their own, so Romily offers to carry a baby for them and they arrange the logistics of this transaction privately between them. But no one has bargained on the unravelling of relationships and emotions. Hmmm. Very similar plot line to mine then.

Elizabeth is MissingElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey was recommended to me by someone who’d also read my Remember Remember. Again it came out long after mine – seven years this time. Costa Book Award And again it won a prestigious prize – the Costa First Novel Award 2014.

In a nutshell: Maud is struggling with dementia and searching for her friend Elizabeth. She is haunted by unresolved issues from her past. The bewilderment and confusion of the dementing mind are beautifully captured, and important truths are dotted into the account of Maud’s thinking and stumbling through life. Remember RememberFor example, she loves being teased; it makes her ‘feel human’; the other person is assuming she’s ‘intelligent enough to get a joke.’ Worth remembering.

I’ve now finished both. Verdict? Enjoyable reads, although neither achieved a 5 star rating for me. The overlaps with my books are noteworthy, so I’m glad I wrote mine first. It’s an abiding concern with me that another publication will come out ahead of mine that makes it look as if I stole someone else’s ideas! Partly fuelled of course by a heightened awareness of a topic which means you see it everywhere. On the other hand, I’m delighted to find such thought-provoking books are receiving real recognition.

Nicola MorganAll this reading feels like a great indulgence, so it was heartening to hear prolific author, Nicola Morgan, (at a Blackwells Bookshop author-event last week) describe reading novels as an essential part of stress reduction, and not the luxury or guilty pleasure it’s sometimes portrayed as – she calls it ‘readaxation’! And she should know: she’s an expert on the brain and coping with stress. I shall sink back into my upholstered chair and allow the healthy hormones to do their work as I turn the pages …

Oh, and by the way, click here for an interesting clip about the value of reading aside from relaxation.



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Good care? What is it?

Well, October has begun with a rash of developments in my world.

Assisted dying lawsTo begin with, another state in the USA, California, has made assisted suicide legal as from 1 January next year. They are the fifth state to do so. The law, based on a similar measure in Oregon, allows doctors to prescribe drugs to end a patient’s life if two medical practitioners agree the person has only six months to live and is mentally competent. Interestingly, in this case, the law as it’s presently written, will expire after ten years unless extended. Apparently this was a compromise made for those lawmakers who fear unintended consequences such as targeting of the poor, disabled or elderly. Sounds like a sensible caution to me.

This week too, we’ve heard of a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which finds the UK ‘the best place in the world to die’ as the newspapers put it; top of 80 countries involved in their survey when it comes to end-of-life care. Key factors are identified as a strong hospice movement, palliative care integrated into the NHS, specialised staff, and hospital/community integration … hmm … more of this anon.

Then, building on this, Baroness Ilora Finlay, a major spokesperson on the topic, and herself a former medical consultant in palliative care, came on TV this week to talk about her draft Palliative Care Bill which tries to address the disconnect between medical and social services in care of the dying; to provide equitable and efficient care for all. Being top in the survey is encouraging, she says, but there’s still plenty of work to be done to ensure excellence across the board. Indeedy!

The emphasis is on really listening to what the families need at a time when they are caring for a loved one, and providing a central hub for familes to liaise with, in order to avoid the frustration of time and effort wasted searching for the right people to help.

Aged hands claspedThis all resonates for me at the moment. Someone I care about was recently admitted into the acute NHS system, into a vast, bright new shiny hospital, for management of her broken hip. Sybil (not her real name) is in her nineties, she has dementia, she is bewildered and confused by the alien environment, as well as immobilised by a fracture and on medication for pain relief. I’m quite sure her actual medical treatment was expert: the hip was fixed rapidly. But – a big BUT – the staff in the two wards Sybil was placed in were openly hierarchical, those with power seemed to have no time to listen, no willingness to know what would help to keep this lost wee soul calm and secure. It was down to us who know and love her to try to fill these gaps as best we could in the times we were able/permitted to be with her. And it was obvious that Sybil was not happy; she caused mayhem on more than one occasion!

This week she’s been transferred to a low-tech community facility; older, more run down, higgeldly-piggedly. But the difference inside the ward housing her is palpable too. Everywhere you go staff are friendly and helpful, anxious to accommodate the needs of the patients in their orbit; anything that will help Sybil settle and smile is welcomed. We can walk away knowing she’s in good hands. She’s already visibly more relaxed.

Good care is so much more than up-to-the-minute medicine. And when it comes to elderly people with dementia, it’s often the little things that make the difference between wanting to go on and preferring to die; little things that tell them they are valued and cherished and understood.

Old fashioned pen and inkFifty years ago I wrote an essay – using this very Parker pen – about the care of patients being so much more than delivering technical procedures efficiently. It won a prize from the British Medical Association no less! Back then the medical technology and capability we take for granted in the twenty-first century was undreamed of, but basic human needs remain much the same. That message is needed every bit as much. Let’s not lose sight of this in all our cleverness.



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Mental health

The Orchard gardenI’ve always been conscious how borderline I am psychologically-speaking. I didn’t dare dabble in psychiatry during my training; the dividing lines between health and pathology seemed far too fragile and close to home!

So being immersed in a novel about mental health issues, living inside the skin of characters with self image problems, has been a somewhat precarious occupation for me. It was imperative that I should burrow deep inside their minds in order to understand how they would speak, act, react; I frequently got the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God feeling. So when I saw the Doors Open programme for this weekend, the Redhall Walled Garden in Edinburgh’s Colinton Dell jumped out at me and topped my list of paces to visit.

The garden itself dates back to the 18th Century but for the last 27 years it’s been operating as a Scottish Association for Mental Health facility. Trainees (as they are called) attend for at least three days a week building up to five, and they work in gardening, IT, administration and health awareness. In their own words SAMH ‘provides conditions for growth and positive mental well-being and works to create a safe place when people are experiencing distress.’

And indeed it was a remarkably peaceful place to wander around. I lingered particularly in the secluded seating areas, absorbing the atmosphere, picturing my characters huddled there, hiding there.

The Summer houseThe Sunken GardenThe RoundhouseI too felt safe and calm.

I rather wish I’d known about this little haven before I started probing my own depths for Inside of Me!

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The Costa Award goes to …

After last week’s experience I decided I needed to immerse myself in some quality writing to try to lift my own game. There on my tbr shelf was a Costa Award winner: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. (It won the Biography Award in 2010.) Good place to start then.

The Hare with Amber EyesThe author, Edmund de Waal, is a world renowned British artist specialising in ceramics – to call him a potter (as he does himself) is to diminish the heights to which he has risen. In 1994 he inherited from his great-uncle a collection of 264 miniature Japanese sculptures, netsuke: tiny ornaments which are ‘very rich, very simple, very tactile‘; ‘witty and ribald and slightly comic.’ (I recommend a quick pop across to Google to look at images of them.) He was curious to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive so long, so he set out on a search for a lost family and a lost time.

His research was impressive; meticulous and immensely detailed, and it took him seven years to write this family saga-cum-treasure hunt in which he unravels both the story of the netsuke and of the Ephrussi family, over five generations, and against the backdrop of world history.

During the nineteenth-century the Ephrussis were a banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, as rich and respected as the Rothchilds, moving in the highest social circles; but by the end of World War II, this collection of netsuke hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, was all that remained of their vast empire. It’s a ‘vertiginous descent‘ for de Waal’s family from commissioning works of art to being commissioned; from owning famous paintings to writing about them. His account makes fascinating reading and beautifully captures the mores and magic of the times. He brings both an artist’s sensibilities and a descendant’s curiosity to the task.

Japan features significantly, of course – chiming with my love of Japanese gardens. Indeed on the very day I started reading this book we invested (I use the word advisedly!) in two more gorgeous Japanese acers for our own patch. I just love everything about them.

Japanese acers

The writing is so good I want to allow it to give you a flavour of the book through direct quotes. Here’s an early description of the Japanese people at a time when they were rarely seen in France:

… their skin is lightly bronzed, the beard rare; some of them have adopted the moustache … the mouth is large, conformed to open squarely, in the fashion of masks in Greek comedy; the cheekbones become round and the forehead protuberant on the oval of the face; the external angles of the small bridled eyes, but black and alive, with a piercing gaze, lift towards the temples. They are the Japanese.

The netsuke are central to the tale, visually appealing, endlessly different, collectors’ pieces, children’s playthings. But touch is also a vital part of the experience of admiring them. We see them being carried in pockets and hands and aprons, at once a comfort, a curiosity and a treasure:

The man who handles an object with indifferent fingers, with clumsy fingers, with fingers that do not envelope lovingly is a man who is not passionate about art.

NetsukeThey should always be displayed sympathetically:

Charles bought a black vitrine to put them in, wood polished like lacquer. it was taller than him, just over six foot high. You could see in through the glass door at the front and through the glass at the sides. A mirror at the back let the netsuke slide away into infinities of collecting. And they were all placed on green velvet. There are many subtle variations of colour in netsuke, all the colours of the ivory, the horn and the boxwood: cream, wax, nut-brown, gold in this field of dense dark green. … The vitrines … frame them, suspend them, tantalise through distance.

The author travels far and wide tracking the history of his inheritance – Japan, Austria, France, England, Ukraine, Russia, and he manages to evoke the spirit of these places with his poetic descriptions:

Vienna’s Ringstrasse ‘becomes a musical series of buildings, spaced with parks, punctuated by statues‘, with ‘a rhythm that suits its purpose,’ and a ‘space for progresses, for display’. De Waal realises that ‘I am going too fast, walking as if I had a destination, rather than a point of departure. I remember that this was the street that was made for the slower movement of the daily “Corso”, the ritualised stroll for society along the Kärntner Ring to meet and flirt and gossip and be seen’.

One of his dynastic houses in Austria is observed thus:

All I can see is marble: there is lots of marble. This doesn’t say enough. Everything is marble. Floor, stairs, walls of staircase, columns on staircase, ceiling over staircase, mouldings on ceilings of staircase. Turn left and I go up the family stairs, shallow marble steps. Turn right and I go into another entrance hall. I look down and the patriarch’s initials are set in the marble floor: JE (for Joachim Ephrussi) with a coronet above them. By the grand stairs are two torchères, taller than me. The steps go on and on, trippingly shallow. Black marble frames the huge double doors – black and gold – I push, and I enter the world of Ignace Ephrussi …

… everything gilded and ornate and encrusted and intricate and dripping wealth. No wonder de Waal couldn’t bear to have a portrait of Ignace’s wife Emilie hung on his wall at home, looking down on his domestic life in disbelief! She as so many of his predecessors came from a different stratum of society altogether. They feature in paintings, in newspaper reports, in books. They are mentioned in the same context as royalty. In one such volume where one of his ancestors appears as protagonist, de Waal’s comment was: it was ‘viscous with infatuation‘. How evocative is that!

But when it comes to the family members themselves, he has immersed himself in the detail and conjured up living breathing people. We take a swift intake of breath when great-grandfather Viktor’s elder brother elopes with his father’s Russian Jewish mistress. Of course he is instantly disinherited; Viktor suddenly becomes the reluctant heir to the family’s banking business. We feel his discomfort, so ill at ease in this totally unsuitable new role:

‘I think it might have been at around this point that Viktor developed his nervous tic of taking off his pince-nez and wiping his hand across his face from brow to chin, a reflex movement. He was clearing his mind, or arranging his public face. Or perhaps he was erasing his private face, catching it in his hand.’

Viktor’s wife, Emmy, twenty one years his junior, keeps the vitrine of netsuke in her dressing room. Why, her great-grandson wonders? Why not in one of the many public rooms where they might be admired by visitors as well as the family? The clue seems to lie in the intimacy of the room and the time she spent primping and preening in front of its great panels of mirror:

‘She changed three times a day – sometimes more. Putting on a hat to go to the races, with lots of little curls pinned one by one to the underside of the hat’s wide brim, took forty minutes. To put on the long embroidered ballgown with a hussar’s jacket, intricate with frogging, took for ever. There was dressing up for parties, for shopping, dinner, visiting, riding to the Prater and balls. Each hour in this dressing-room was a calibration of corset, dress, gloves and hat with the day, the shrugging-off of oneself and the lacing onto another. She has to be sewn onto some dresses, Anna, kneeling at her feet, producing thread, needle, thimble from the pocket of her apron. Emmy has furs, sable trimming to a hem, an arctic fox around her neck in one photograph, a six-foot stole of bear looped over a gown in another. An hour could pass with Anna fetching different gloves.’

But there’s another reason too. During the hour of dressing to go out in the evening, she allowed her children in to play with the precious netsuke. How they must have treasured those special minutes; at once close to their otherwise-remote and fractious mother, and also given this golden opportunity to caress the beautiful child-size carvings, re-order them, muddle them up to tease a sister, even listen to mother weaving stories about them!

De Waal includes many delightful personal touches which capture his own experiences as he travelled. Whilst in Vienna tracking the netsuke he’s walking just 400 yards from his paternal family mansion, the Palais Ephrussi, when he drops his glasses. They break, and he sees the irony: he’s looking at this monolith to his own past and he cannot see clearly!

DipladeniaThere’s even a little snippet that resonates particularly with me right now. The Czech poet, Rilke, is giving advice about accepting criticism to Emmy and Viktor’s daughter Elisabeth (de Waal’s grandmother) who is herself a poet and lawyer:

‘… it is not the gardener who is encouraging and caring who helps, but the one with the pruning shears and spade; the rebuke!’

How true!

It’s a fabulous book and lifted my spirits enormously in spite of its harrowing accounts of life in Austria at the time of the Nazi rule and the terrible persecutions and appropriations that led to the fall and poverty of the Ephrussi family. The shifty trips of the maid Anna carrying the little carvings to safety one by one in her apron pocket shine through, a triumph of hope over adversity.

What I didn’t know when I started reading this book was that, this very week, five years after the publication of The Hare with Amber Eyes, De Waal is about to publish his second book: The White Road, which is all about porcelain, the material he works with as a ceramicist. Hard to believe it will find the phenomenal success that The Hare with Amber Eyes did. Time will tell.




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