This most unusual non-fiction book is unexpected and wonderful.
It’s hard to know what this book is, exactly. A history, certainly, of once-elusive, near-transparent, white porcelain. This part spans 1000 years, starting in Jingdezhen in China, where the secrets of its production were tightly controlled for an obsessive emperor.
It’s also a personal quest and travel book for de Waal, a highly regarded potter himself, who wants to see the three “white mountains” that produce the pale clay that is an integral part of porcelain production. He visits Jingdezhen; Dresden in Germany, where the secrets were uncovered after decades of effort, in 1708; and Plymouth in England where the Quakers found the secret in the1770s, but struggled to make it work commercially.
There’s a slice of autobiography too in De Waal’s path to becoming a potter, and his work towards a major exhibition.
But mostly this is a book about obsession. De Waal mixes the different threads together, largely in the present tense, making the working of a philosopher centuries ago as immediate as his own struggles with clay today. He acknowledges the price often paid for obsession, taking up the stories of those who gave up their lives and health in the name of this precious white stuff.
It’s a deeply personal, odd and fascinating book from best-selling author of The Hare with Amber Eyes.
Book published in October 2015.
This review first published in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine.