Netherland (2008) – Joseph O’NEILL

This novel has been, in certain circles, at least, making waves as the favourite to win the Booker this year. While it was longlisted, it didn’t even make the shortlist in the end. What, then, was the hype all about? Why was this the post-Septermber 11 novel we’d all been waiting for? Why is this the ‘great American novel’, when it was written by an Irishman? So many questions…

When Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman living in England, receives a call from American police, he is informed that a friend of his Chuck Ramkissoon, has been found dead in a river. For Hans, this brings back memories of the few years he spent in New York City with his wife and young child in the early 2000s, when everything changed. Apart from his fractured marriage, he also begins to remember Chuck – a man who truly believed that cricket was, and could be again, the national sport of America.

This book is very clearly delineated into three sections. The first deals with the collapse of Hans’ marriage, the second with his growing friendship with Chuck, and the last with his eventual return to England. The first section is amazing – the prose is beautiful, and there are some amazing character and plot moments. Hans’ movement into NYC, and his young marriage, which are presented as flashbacks, are nicely juxtaposed with his current life in a hotel, living with some of the most fantastic characters ever written. I particularly like the Turkish angel – a Turkish man who dresses as an angel, and haunts the corridors of the hotel. While the other two sections of the book are also pretty good, it does seem to peak very early with this first section.

For me, as soon as I hit the second section, it was as though something had changed completely, even though the plot itself didn’t. Which is a shame, and I can’t quite place my finger on what it is that changes, or why I didn’t like it as much, but there you go. Maybe it’s because I hate cricket, and it’s not until the second section that it begins to become a focus. Not that this is a sporting novel – on the contrary, cricket becomes a way for all of these immigrants to come together and celebrate being different, which for Hans is particularly unique, considering he is the only white man on the cricket team. I suppose people who look like they should fit in are perhaps treated differently, and as such, have a very different experience in regards to what it means to be an outsider. For Hans, though, he always seems to have been an outsider – even in his own marriage. He is the strong but silent type, that keeps everything bottled up, and is content to plod along at life. This, of course, turns out to be the reason his marriage falls apart so quickly.

What I think is done really well is the character of Rachel. While I agree with her politics, she does seem to embody everything that was wrong about the reactions of people to the attacks of September 11. Granted, her early lingering fear is thoroughly and understandably justifiable, especially considering she is a new mum, but the fervour with which she tries to attack Hans for not having an opinion on the whole thing, when the American (or Bush administration, at least) reaction is clearly ‘wrong’, is so great that her refusal to see Hans’ reaction as normal breaks their marriage. Similarly, though, Hans’ inability to feel anything, to tell Rachel what he is thinking is nicely done. It is interesting that Hans then moves to a close male relationship – that with Chuck – to try and deal with this. In times of crisis, men come together and play sport to forget both their own troubles, and the troubles of the world, this book seems to be saying. Which is pretty true, I suppose – this stereotypically masculine thing of either ignoring the problem completely, or keeping it inside and refusing to discuss it.

Netherland is good, but it’s not mind-bogglingly great. It does, however, show signs of greatness – particularly that first section. And while this is certainly touted as a post-September 11 novel, and while the attacks are a catalyst for many of the things that take place, this is, in the end, a book about relationships, about masculinity and about marriage. And about cricket.

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