Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (a review)

Netherland: A Novel
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.


Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting. I never knew there was a cricket subculture in New York.

Sandra said...

This has been on my TBR list since The Elegant Variation lit blog recommended it. I'm glad to find someone else who enjoyed it and reviewed it. Thank you.

Sandra said...

I'm back to say I just finished it and enjoyed it very much. I would rate it 4 stars out of five also.

Gwen Dawson said...

Thanks for coming back to let us know what you thought of the book.

Anonymous said...

This is my first post on your blog. I just found the site LibraryThing, and found your blog through it because you listed most of my books. Of course, your list is tons longer than mine.

I just started this book last night. I put a library hold on it after seeing it on some "best of the year" lists and reading brief descriptions of it there. I am enjoying it a lot and will probably spend mus time today reading.

Bob said...

OK now. I finished the book New Years Eve. (Don't ask me why I was reading on New Years Eve.)

Last post I used anonymous. I don't know why.

This was a quick read. I enjoyed it alot, so I read it in only a few sesions. I liked the style - not much diaglogue, at least not the short, snappy type. Lots of long expository paragraphs.
I've been wondering about the title though. It is obviously a reference to Holland, where the main character was born, but the singular has me wondering. It is not easily apparent to me.

Bob said...

I just found this at the Atlantic, in its interview with the author:

I noticed in the bio of an Atlantic piece of yours from 2005 that your novel was then going to be titled “The Brooklyn Dream Game.” But Netherland is such a clever title, with its multiple meanings of Hans living in a netherland of his own design, and the fact that he’s a Netherlander in a city settled by Netherlanders. I was surprised that wasn’t the book’s title all along. When did you switch?

I’m thrilled you should say that—that it has a retrospective inevitability. But I can tell you there was nothing inevitable about it. I thought I had this amazing title, “The Brooklyn Dream Game,” and when I was finishing the book, a friend of mine, Paul Muldoon, the poet, said, “Oh, ‘The Brooklyn Dream Game.’ That’s a good title. You don’t have any others in mind, do you?” That’s his way of being very polite. I turned to my wife and said, “Do you think I should come up with an alternative to ‘The Brooklyn Dream Game’?” And she said, “Yeah, I don’t think it’s a very good title.” And I said to her, “I’ve walked around for years with this title, and now you tell me it’s not very good?” It’s like walking around for years with a bogey sticking out of your nose, and you expect your friends to say something. But then my wife suggested the title “Netherland.” And you’re right, if I may say so, it does work on innumerable levels. To have a Dutch narrator in the context of an American novel is almost to have the original American narrator, because of course the Dutch were the first people here in New York. And there is reference made, from time to time in the book, to New Netherland, which is old New York. So Hans is the most recent iteration of the original American presence in this part of the world.