The book jacket of the hard-bound edition is entrancingly deceptive. Printed on what feels like watercolor paper, it shows a colored vignette of men in white playing cricket on a village green watched by spectators relaxing in the shade of a spreading chestnut tree. It could well be the nineteenth century, except that the skyline in the background is Manhattan, and Joseph O'Neill's novel is set in the first years of the present century. Written in a style of such lucidity that it might almost be an autobiographical memoir, it is the narrative of three years or so in New York City. The protagonist Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born financial analyst, thirtyish and near the top of his profession, arrives there at the start of the millennium with Rachel, his English wife, herself a high-powered lawyer. But after the attacks of 9/11, Rachel returns to England with their infant son. Hans stays on.
On one level, this is a novel of displacement. Having already relocated to London from Holland, Hans makes the further move to New York, where both he and Rachel prosper. But they have to evacuate their loft apartment after the attacks, and move into temporary quarters in the Chelsea Hotel, which is portrayed as an almost-surreal world unto itself. So Hans is essentially rootless before the story truly starts. By sheer chance, he stumbles upon the fact that cricket is played in New York by scratch teams of immigrants from former British colonies: Indians, Pakistanis, Caribbeans. Hans, who learned the game at an exclusive school in Holland, becomes the only white member of a team formed of taxi-drivers, store-keepers, and small businessmen, who offer him a kind of camaraderie that he cannot find among his professional colleagues.
Although cricket is an important symbolic presence, it plays a relatively minor part in the action, and it is not necessary for the reader to know the game. At first, cricket is presented as a symbol of the immigrant subculture, the thing that both brings people together and emphasizes their differences from mainstream America. As a successful Wall Street banker, Hans might be expected to fit right into New York society -- and indeed the author makes the point that, as a Dutchman, he is actually a member of the historic first tribe of New York. But in soul-crushing scenes at the DMV and INS that might have been penned by Kafka, but which any victim of American bureaucracy will recognize, O'Neill does not spare Hans some of the worst aspects of the immigrant experience. Hans spends the first part of the book in a cultural limbo; when he joins the team, he find that most of his old skills come back, but he cannot bring himself to modify his patrician batting form in order to hold his own with players who learned in dirt lots; by his final American cricket game, he is hitting out with reckless abandon.
The English have an expression, "It's just not cricket," when something contravenes an unstated social law. Later in the book, Hans remarks: "I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice." That "imagining" is important; O'Neill gently suggests that America's image as the champion of justice has become tarnished in the last few years. But he is also framing the moral dichotomy of the novel. The other major character in the story is a Trinidadian immigrant, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-like figure who thinks big and maintains a finger in every pie. At the very beginning of the book (which is all told in flashbacks), Hans learns of Chuck's death in what seems like a mob killing. But his first chronological appearance in the story is when, as the umpire for a cricket match, he defuses a potentially dangerous situation, and follows it up with a clubhouse speech that is both a defence of the highest ideals of cricket and a potential vision of America as the Promised Land. Chuck has grandiose plans to build an international cricket stadium in New York, and he enlists Hans into furthering his vision. But he also has shady activities on the side, whose nature only gradually becomes clear. In dealing with these two sides of Chuck's character, Hans gradually comes to re-examine his own moral sense, identity, and priorities.
But NETHERLAND is no mere novel of ideas; it is also an emotionally wrenching love-story. For most of the book, the marriage of Hans and Rachel is virtually non-existent. When she leaves him, it is clear that she needs to escape more than the physical dangers of the bombed city. Hans flies to London every two weeks to see his son, but his relations with Rachel are painfully distant. And yet the novel opens some years later, with the two of them back together again, and apparently happy. Amazingly, O'Neill makes the fact that "you know how it all comes out" into a source of more tension, not less. The days in New York between Rachel's decision and her actual departure are agonizing and so so true. And even when Hans leaves America and returns to London for good, the story is far from over; there is love to be found, but it must be new-forged, and it does not come easily. At one point towards the end of his stay in America (in Las Vegas, no less), Hans talks of reaching absolute bottom. But it is not Hell that he has been through, rather a very special kind of Purgatory.
The author Sebastian Barry, in a comment quoted on the back cover, writes: "The dominant sense is of aftermath, things flying off under the impulse of an unwanted explosion, and the human voice calling everything back." Without that human voice, this story might merely be an offbeat curiosity. But O'Neill, with his clear moral compass and extraordinary power of writing from the heart, has created what may be the most moving book I have read all year.
on May 24, 2008
This book has been reviewed so extensively and lavishly that I wonder if I actually have anything to add. Here is what I loved about Netherland: those of us fortunate enough to live in New York typically take great pleasure in the multiple layers of life and experience we find here. No matter who we are, we are constantly reminded that we are only one of thousands of unique stories walking the sidewalks of this city and riding the trains. Netherland is a beautiful reminder of this--it takes readers outside of their own experience and says, "Consider this!" I enjoyed it less for the 9/11 connection, which is not in my mind all that important to the plot, than for the reminder of what is extraordinary about this city. I galloped through the first reading, knowing full well I'd go back to savor it again. The writing really is lyrical--that is no exaggeration. Just when you think English has been fully exploited in all the most beautiful ways, along comes another writer who does it again. Many sentences have the humor and beauty of Mark Helprin at his best. Living in Chelsea makes this story special for me, but it will resonate with readers far afield for other reasons having to do with love, dreams, and dislocation. Don't miss it.
on September 25, 2008
"Netherland" is a book that received very positive reviews from major newspapers as well as this web site. It always is a cause for reflection when one's opinion runs contrary to "experts" but I believe this book fails to live up to a five star rating.
I feel the writing is uneven, mannered and more focused on the technical elements of the fiction rather than its substance. The narrator can be an annoying and petulant presence and when he bemoans the number of friends and acquaintances (not to mention his wife) who leave him or fail to maintain contact, it is not hard to understand why.
There were times when I wondered whether I wanted to finish it but abandoning a book in mid-read has been a rare occurrence for me. There was a redemption, of sorts, in the final chapter (the book is divided into three chapters.) The author began to write in a freer and more relaxed fashion and with greater emotion. It actually felt like someone else had picked up the pen or, at the least, the author had decided to get to the heart of the matter.
There may be a time when I am willing to give this book a second read but,overall, I see it only as a partially successful effort.
Reading this novel gave me great pleasure. In contrast to its plain cover, this marvelous novel, written in mellifluous and elegant prose, is complex; its world sprawling and vast, with mind-boggling depth. After reading only two pages, I found myself charmed by its narrator's voice, and my mind glued to its world.
On the surface it is the story of its narrator, a banker named Hans van den Broek , born and raised in Netherlands, and working in London. While working in London in a bank, he meets an Englishwoman named Rachel and marries her. They have a son named Jake. In 1990's, they relocate to New York and live in TriBeCa. After the terrorist attack on the Word Trade Center on 9/11, however, they relocate again, and decide to live in the Chelsea Hotel. But Rachel's fear of another terrorist attack and the toxic political atmosphere in the United States create stress in their marriage, and the stress in turn compels Rachel to move with her son, once again, back to London.
Underneath this story, there is another story about a Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon. Ramkissoon is a shady character. He runs a fraudulent and illegal numbers racket. But like many men, even a man from the under-world, he has big ambitions and a dream of starting a world-class cricket field and cricket club in Staten Island and of turning cricket into a national sport in America.
The third story inter-woven with the other two is the story of the game cricket itself and its ardent players at the Staten Island Cricket Club, immigrants from countries such as Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Bahamas, and other tropical countries. Mr. O'Neill weaves the three strands into a lovely braid, his lyrical prose serving as an adornment, like a rope of fragrant jasmine that often adorns a braid in tropical lands.
The most striking feature of this novel, without a doubt, is Mr. O'Neill's elegant and flowing prose, smooth and free from jarring edges and ripples, and as lovely as the very best I have read in my fifty years of romance with the English language: "The day was thick as a jelly, with a hot, glassy atmosphere and no wind, not even a breeze from the Kill of Kull, which flows less than two hundred yards from Walker Park and separates Staten Island from New Jersey. Far away, in the south, was the mumbling of thunder. It was the kind of barbarously sticky American afternoon that made me yearn for the shadows cast by scooting summer clouds in northern Europe, yearn even for those days when you play cricket wearing two sweaters under a cold sky patched here and there by a blue tatter -- enough to make a sailor's pants, as my mother used to say."
Mr. O'Neill's command over the English language is such that his long sentences have the miraculous property of never annoying the reader. In fact, they tickle the reader's mind and induce great pleasure.
on February 3, 2009
Bought this for a trip as a result of the over the top Times review and its selection (also by NYT) as one of the year's ten best. Boy was I sorry. Couldn't finish it because of Mr. O'Neill's constant striving to find the most complicated constructions/word groups for his sentences, an effort which added nothing to the story or the development of its characters. Here's an example (and the place I stopped reading). The main character is in his apartment looking out double doors leading to his balcony after a snow storm and at a small drift of snow piled up against them. "I was torn between a ridiculous loathing of this obdurate wintry ectoplasm and an equally ridiculous tenderness stimulated by a solid's battle against the forces of liquefaction."
I rest my case.
on December 27, 2008
Netherland is a love story, where the love object is a post-9/11 New York City. Given a choice between staying in NYC and following his wife back to London, Hans stays for another two years, drinking in all that is NYC while adrift from his family.
I noticed that most of the 5 star reviews were from people in NYC. Similarly, of the 6 blurbs on the back cover, 5 were from distinctly New York publications (New York Times, NYT Review of Books, New Yorker, etc.) New Yorkers love their city, and 250 pages of praise of all of the wonders and wonderment of an outsiders view of NYC seems to strike a happy chord with them. As a non-New Yorker, though, I was mostly bored.
What little plot there is could be decribed in a paragraph, and it isn't relevant anyway. The writing is smooth and clean, but not particularly poetic or beautiful. Which leaves 250 pages describing how wonderful NYC is. If you recognize the places and people, you'll probably enjoy it. If not, then like me, you're likely to find it boring.
on October 5, 2008
That I am even writing this is evidence of my dislike. I have a million things to do, and yet, out of sheer disgust and disappointment, I must critique this work. That this earned the reviews it did, has made me more intrepid about reviving my own writing career. If this author, whose name I will never remember, since the work itself is immemorable, can write and get the reviews he did, so can I. So can You. So can my dog.
If there were beautiful sentences, I missed them! You want beautiful sentences, read Fitzgerald, to whom this author, shockingly, erroneously, has been compared. Read Roth's Everyman, Llosa's The Bad Girl, Petterson's Out Stealing Horses. You want a substitute for Ambien, read this novel.
My problem with this book is that I didn't care about the characters. Had I not recommended it for my book group, I wouldn't have finished it. (Having finished it, I can say I wouldn't have missed much!) Around page 175 I felt a twinge for the protagonist, Hans, the stirrings of feeling, but this didn't evolve into anything more significant. The female character was flat and unbelievable, which made Han's affection for her unbelievable. The Chuck character was uneven. He was like a sketch of a character. I felt as though the author didn't really know him. When, finally, something happens to him I thought, who cares? (Who's Chuck?)
The narrator spends a lot of time telling about the events in his life. but he is a royal bore, thus, so were his exegeses. I would launch into one of these paragraphs, and, midway through, substitute blah, blah, blah.
In my opinion, the author undertook a literary task that proved out of his league. He developed a depressed and disassociated first person narrator undergoing life altering experiences. Unlike say, Salinger or Roth or Petteron or Charles Baxter, he failed to make this narrator evoke feelings in the reader. There was a lot of telling in this book. I often had the impression the author himself wasn't intimate with his characters. I never got there.
Based on the reviews I read everywhere I recommended this dull mass of words to my book group and I am embarrassed. I plan to fill the time talking about all the other good books I recently read.
on April 7, 2009
170 pages into Netherland, I had a crisis of faith... I wasn't sure if I was meant to be a reader. This may sound strange as I typically read 6 books a month encompassing a variety of genres. This book though really tested my faith in my perceptions of good literature. Here's the problem with Netherland--It's billed as a great American novel, the modern equivalent of The Great Gatsby. Talk about high expectations! Hans is the narrator of the story, a quiet hard-working conscious character who in his lack of solidity is a perfect everyman. This would be perfectly fine except the book is told from his view and his lifeless blandness tinges everything with the color of ambivalence. Hans never came to life for me, and all of the other characters were just minor bit parts circling around him, Chuck included, whose befriending of Hans is the driving narrative of the book. As many reviewers have said, there was alot of discussion of cricket (of which I know nothing about it; maybe one reason I couldn't become fully engaged) and alot of driving around Brooklyn and Queens. One thing O'Neill does well is capture the reality of living in NYC perfectly--the people, the tone, the culture. It's spot on. But is this enough to make a good read? I wonder if all the people who gave great reviews are just die-hard NYers who are applauding O'Neill's ability to put this great city's heart down on paper. For me, I started to despair on p. 170 when I realized there might never be a plot or a crescendo or a denouement. I realized that I might actually have spent 170 pages reading a book which though elegantly phrased at times gave me relatively little insight into my own existence and which furthermore didn't even have a good story. I'm happy to report that I finished Netherland last night and no, the ending didn't make up for it. I'm just relieved it's over and I can move on to something good to read.
We have to be careful with ethnic stereotypes these days, but perhaps it can be suggested without giving offence that the image of the Dutch bourgeoisie is one of rationality, level-headedness and emotions under control. Almost without exception in my experience, their command of English is perfect and they fit perfectly into careers in English-speaking nations. The narrator of Netherland is exactly such a Dutchman. In his career he is an effortless high-flyer, when separated from his wife and child he flies fortnightly to London from Niew Amsterdam to visit them without a financial qualm or any seeming sense of fatigue or jet-lag, he joins his family at a moment's notice and without any apparent change of pace in a holiday in Kerala, and his receptive imagination takes flight to Trinidad as well.
What is striking about Hans is that although a lot happens to him he is never the initiator of anything that happens. First his marriage falls apart, then by the end of the book it is getting together again, but his wife is the driver of both events. Intelligent, thoughtful and successful he may be, capable of a formidable amount of emotional resilience too, but tagging along like a tame dog in his wife's turbulent wake. Three extra-marital liaisons are mentioned, one in some detail. In this the woman seduces him, and when she then breaks off contact that's that and she is never even mentioned again. With the other two it seems to have been a similar story. Nothing of this nature is anywhere near as important to him as the game of cricket it seems. If anything in this superb novel strikes me as a little overdone it is the lengthy and loving musings on the great sport of the British Empire. It is only quite recently that I became aware that Holland and Ireland are making determined efforts to break into the imperial monopoly. Just how deep-rooted their love of the game is I am now beginning to understand from this tale put into the mouth of a Dutchman by an Irish author.
Cricket in America seems to be a game for either English émigrés (as in Waugh) or immigrants (as here). It is starting to follow soccer in being a big-money game, but the place where the money is to be made is clearly not the USA but India. Apart from the marriage/family theme, the other main narrative is of Hans's partial involvement, typically cautious, prompted and reactive on his part, with a cricket-minded immigrant entrepreneur who strongly recalls Gatsby, not least in the man's fate mentioned at the outset and partially explained near the end. I did not really find anything amounting to a theme with regard to 9/11 or the conflict in Iraq. They are mentioned because that is the timeframe in which the story is set and it would have been rather coy if they had not been referred to in a story largely taking place in New York, but the mentions are brief and incidental. It is true that Rachel cites the post-9/11 atmosphere as her reason for taking their son away from New York, but I fancy it's clear enough that if it had not been for that reason she would have found another.
This is the unfinished tale of a man whose emotions are genuine and deep - unfinished not (I hope) in the sense that there is going to be a sequel but because if anything is clear from the sequence of events here it is that neither Hans nor anyone else is likely to carry on from where the book leaves off in any placid nirvana. Hans's main characteristic is rationality. He is truthful with himself and can face up to his own shortcomings as he perceives them, but he is probably a bit too rational for his own good. If his life is going to be happy or fulfilled (whatever the latter might be in his case) that will only be so if others allow it to be. I found the whole novel to be one of the best and most involving that I have had the privilege of reading in years. I'm not myself inclined to read allegories or social/political messages into it. What this book possesses, for me, is human truth. The characterisation is exceptionally convincing, and it is helped by writing that I would describe as being of the highest quality. I do not normally have any great problem in putting novels down, but I certainly did with this one.
on June 21, 2008
If you are, like the rest of us, still searching for that post-9/11 epic that perfectly evokes the Zeitgeist of our present time, you will certainly be, as I was, disappointed with Mr. O'Neill's novel "Netherland." What the New York Times Book Review lauded as "Post 9/11, a New York of Gatsby-Size Dreams and Loss" is certainly a misleading epithet if not a downright lie. Indeed, comparing Mr. O'Neill's book to F. Scott Fitzgerald's chef-d'oeuvre is committing a terrible travesty. As critic Dwight Garner writes: "Joseph O'Neill's `Netherland' is not [the definitive 9/11] novel. It's too urbane, too small-boned, too savvy to carry much Dreiserian sweep and swagger." The novel's most apparent shortcoming is the static nature of its characters. Even the enigmatic, quote-unquote "Gatsby-like" character in the book--Chuck Ramkissoon--comes across as insipid, one-dimensional, and horribly banal. His cliché motto, "Think fantastic," is a far cry from Fitzgerald's complex and multi-layered characterization of Jay Gatsby. Although non-linear plots are a common phenomenon in modern literature, the plot of O'Neill's book is desultory, capricious, and irritatingly coreless. Whereas the disjointed plot of "The Great Gatsby" comes across as remarkably fluid owing to Fitzgerald's masterful style (a combination of short, concise descriptions, compelling dialogue, and lyrical passages), "Netherland" lacks cohesion as a result of underdeveloped characters, prosaic dialogue, and a writing style that vacillates between average and very good. The best (and worst) feature of "Netherland" is, of course, the many historical allusions that Mr. O'Neill makes to events of modern times: 9/11, the Israeli-Hezbollah War, the Great Blackout of 2003, the Iraq War, the failures of the Bush Administration, etc. "Netherland"'s most distinctive trait is, by far, the inclusion of these contemporary events into the narrative of Hans van den Broek. However, like many aspects of the book, these allusions seem too superficial and deliberate. For someone who professes multiple times throughout the story that he is not politically conscious, Hans seems uncannily aware of the politics of the post-9/11 era. It seems to me as though Mr. O'Neill constructed the "spirit of the times" around the story and not vice versa. That is to say he wrote the book from top-down instead of from the bottom up. This is ultimately why "Netherland," although an interesting attempt at evoking the post-9/11 Zeitgeist, fails to compel or captivate the reader.