Does historical fiction make better history?

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Recently I finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, a book I’d been meaning to read for ages and finally got around to. I’d expected it to be good, but it was even better than I’d heard. I loved the writing, really clear and straightforward but which drew you into the story completely. But more than that, I finished it thinking that this was the one of the best books I’d read about twentieth century European history, despite never claiming to be a history book. Free from the imperative to appear detached and analytical, the book drew me completely into the worlds it was describing, from belle époque Paris to inter-war Vienna and finally post-war Japan. Since the author is an artist, his concentration on the material is crucial; the Japanese netsuke from which the ceramic figure of the hare is drawn are central to the narrative, but it extends beyond these. His focus on how the places and spaces and objects he describes are lived in and experienced gives the cities and homes he describes a materiality they might otherwise lack. Vienna in particular, was a place and a history I didn’t know in too much detail, but de Waal’s attention to the way that the streets outside the Ephrussi family’s palatial residence sounded and looked like – from the rowdy crowds of students singing bellicose songs after the outbreak of war in 1914 to the pomp of the emperor Franz Joseph I’s funeral cortege passing by in 1916 – gave a sense of what it was actually like to live through these times. I felt I understood the history of twentieth century Vienna and of European Jewish culture much better than I had before. read more

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