4 out of 5: Netherland is the story of a couple (Hans and Rachel) living in New York City with their young son. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Rachel moves back to England where she’s from with their son, claiming she can’t raise a child in such a “diseased” country. After being left behind in NYC by his family, Hans immerses himself in the city’s cricket subculture and befriends Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian entrepreneur who dabbles in shady enterprises and referees cricket matches on the side.
O’Neill’s lyrical and flexible prose captures the nuanced complexity of intimate relationships with as much success as it describes the various strokes available to a batter in a cricket game ("the glance, the hook, the cut, the sweep, the cover drive, the pull and all those other offspring of technique conceived to send the cricket ball rolling and rolling, as if by magic, to the far-off edge of the playing field"). O’Neill’s prose is the best part of this book.
The vivid character of Ramkissoon is the second best part of this book. Ramkissoon dreams of building a world-class cricket arena in Brooklyn and thinks cricket has the power to save the world. Despite his sentimental ideas, or maybe because of them, Ramkissoon is wholly authentic and believable. The character of Rachel, however, is not quite so well conceived. Although O’Neill accurately describes the unsettled feeling felt by many New Yorkers after September 11th, Rachel’s abandonment of her marriage and escape back to England feels more like a plot device than a credible response.
This slim novel tackles many big themes, including marriage (its failure and its resurrection), happiness, September 11th and its aftereffects, sports (literally and as an analogy for human fellowship), and friendship. There’s even an unsolved murder mystery. This unique and sensitive melding of stories offers something for everyone, but the book occasionally attempts too much. Certain underdeveloped threads and loose ends cause Netherland to fall short of a masterpiece.