The best books with a work of art as the narrator

The Books I Picked & Why

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

By Edmund de Waal

Book cover of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

Why this book?

Carved from wood or ivory, Japanese Netsukes were created by both great craftsmen and gifted amateurs. A Netsuke served a single purpose: as the toggle on a cord for a cloth container holding medicine or tobacco. I’m drawn to this book because its author, Edmund de Waal, enlists his ancestor’s collection of Netsuke to combine several genres brilliantly well. It is, at once, a family memoir, travel literature, and essays of migration and exile. I agree with his belief that "objects have always been... stolen, retrieved and lost. It is how you tell their stories that matters."


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Man in the Red Coat

By Julian Barnes

Book cover of The Man in the Red Coat

Why this book?

The subject of this book is featured in a large portrait by John Singer Sargent, painted in 1881 and entitled “Dr. Pozzi at home.” It would be an understatement to say that the good doctor cut a fascinating figure. Julian Barnes does a wonderful job regaling us with Pozzi’s escapades and explaining how, by the time Pozzi died of a gunshot wound inflicted by a crazed patient, his fame had become international. Barnes is a wonderful raconteur, and he invites us into Pozzi’s colourful life with infectious charm, while offering his own erudite first-person ruminations.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World

By Philip Hoare

Book cover of Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World

Why this book?

How to begin? In 1520, Albrecht Dürer, the most celebrated artist in Northern Europe, sailed to Zeeland to see a beached whale with the intention of drawing its likeness. But this fact is only the starting-off point for a memorably vivid journey that straddles countless subjects. Each chapter is anchored in a particular image by Dürer. There is a seamlessness to Hoare’s prose in this book and I marveled at his gifts of insight and observation.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

By Anne-Marie O'Connor

Book cover of The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Why this book?

Among the thousands of confiscated pictures in Nazi-occupied Vienna were those painted by Gustav Klimt. He had often been commissioned to paint the women in wealthy Jewish families, most of whom perished in the Holocaust. Here, the author traces the history of the dazzling gold-leaf portrait of the Jewish society beauty, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Included are the multi-generational journeys of members of some of the great Viennese families. The author makes a point of recounting the tragedies that befell these families, but she also illustrates how—against the odds— they pulled what was left of their families back together. For that I am appreciative.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

How to Be Both

By Ali Smith

Book cover of How to Be Both

Why this book?

This novel is a bit of a dark horse. I was initially doubtful about its premise, but, like any good book, it lured me into its story. I won’t go into too much detail, other than to say that the story is actually two stories that merge. One is of George, a contemporary 16-year-old girl who— struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her mother— attends counselling sessions at her school during which she recalls more and more of the trip she and her mother took to Italy. It was there that she became intrigued by an elusive Italian Renaissance painter of the 1400s, Francesco del Cossa, who, in fact, is indeed known for the frescoes he painted in the mid-1400s. Running concurrent to this fictional story is that of Francesco’s from his own perspective.

Two versions of the book were published simultaneously, one in which George’s narrative is introduced first; the other in which Francesco’s is. After giving way to the novel’s unconventional approach, How to Be Both impressed upon me art’s transformative power and left me weeping at the last page.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists