NETHERLAND by Joseph O’Neill
“We have an extra responsibility to play the game right.”
Review by Roger Brunyate (SEP 07, 2011)
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 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 in awhile.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 178 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Vintage; Reprint edition (May 7, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Joseph O’Neill|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
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