‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill

Netherland

Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 248 pages; 2009.

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland was famously long-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize, attracting a flurry of support from mainly North American critics who loved the cricket element of the book. (The Vulture section of the New York Times has quite a good summary of the acclaim it garnered upon release. And President Obama also turned out to be a fan. )

But on the other side of the pond the response was more mixed. And if you dare check the Amazon.co.uk reviews you’ll see the broad spectrum of views it’s attracted which range from glowing five-star accounts to less-than-complimentary one-star assessments.

Thinking that the novel was about cricket, I picked it up at the start of the Ashes series last month hoping to get myself in the mood for a summer of competitive sport between two old rivals, Australia (my homeland) and England (where I now reside). Six weeks on, the five-match series is now at level pegging and the deciding final match will be played this coming Thursday, so what better time to review the book?

Living in the netherland

While Netherland could be regarded as a paean to cricket, this is not a novel about cricket. This is a novel about what it is like to be an outsider and living in the fringes, or as O’Neill’s apt title suggests, in a state of being neither here nor there — the netherland.

For while the protagonist, Hans van den Broek, chooses cricket as his refuge, there’s a lot more going on here than the “gentleman of sport”. Hans is an immigrant — Dutch-born but educated in Britain and now residing in Manhattan, with his wife and young son. He’s desperate to fit in and goes through the whole rigmarole of gaining his US drivers license, if only to become that little bit more embedded in the culture.

Connecting with people who play cricket in New York is yet another way he can “connect”, albeit with an immigrant underclass. And, tellingly, the one man with whom he forges a tentative friendship, Chuck Ramkissoon, winds up being pulled out of a New York canal with his hands tied behind his back. (Note, this isn’t a plot spoiler: O’Neill reveals this fact up front and much of the novel is about Hans recalling his relationship with Chuck, trying to pinpoint what it is about that man that could have resulted in someone wanting to murder him.)

Disintegration of a marriage

Netherland has also been described as a post-9/11 novel, but again, this label has been slightly misconstrued. While the book reflects the kind of “netherland” residents in Manhattan might have felt in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, a kind of eerie state of no longer feeling comfortable in their homes, this isn’t the sole premise of the book.

O’Neill uses it as a vehicle to explain the disintegration of Hans’ marriage, for while Hans is content to be “carried along by the dark flow of those times” his wife is not. She no longer feels safe in the city and decides to return to her native England, taking their infant son with her. Hans, unable to commit to such a move, finds himself living a kind of transatlantic lifestyle, dividing his time between New York and London. Again, it’s a netherland existence, neither a New Yorker, nor a Londoner; neither a married man, nor a bachelor.

Ironically, having read this book, I, too, felt kind of ambivalent about it, not quite sure if I loved or loathed it. I finished it maybe a month ago but simply haven’t had the time to review it, but strangely, with the passing of time, the story has coalesced in my brain and I’ve found myself thinking about certain elements.

I wonder now what was holding Hans back, why he was passive on so many different fronts — his friendship with Chuck, who clearly had a lot of dodgy things happening in his life; and his foundering marriage — and let events wash over him without really taking any action himself. Was it a psychological netherland that constrained him, or would that be taking the netherland theme a step too far?

The healing power of cricket

One of things that has stuck in my head is the sense of belonging Hans achieved by playing cricket in New York, even though some of his fellow sportsmen could not speak English and he refused to adapt his batting style to the “American way” which meant “the baseball-like business of slugging and hoisting”. I loved that each weekend was spent in a van, travelling around the five boroughs, to play a “friendly”.

We sat mostly silent in the van, absorbed into the moodiness that afflicts competitors as they contemplate, or try to put out of their minds, the drama that awaits. What we talked about, when we did talk, was cricket. There was nothing else to discuss. The rest of our lives — jobs, children, wives, worries — peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit.

As an aside, I was watching BBC Newsnight a week or two back which featured a story about the NYPD running a cricket competition to help improve relations with the city’s ethnic minorities.  “That sounds just like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland,” I told my Other Half, who was watching it with me. Then, lo and behold, the presenter Gavin Esler interviewed, via satellite, O’Neill, who came across as one of the most articulate, gentlemanly and genuine author interviews I’ve ever seen. You can watch it here. It was enough to make me want to read more of his work, so if you’ve read any of this other titles, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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20 thoughts on “‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill

  1. I have of course been waiting for this review. Despite his roots, O’Neill doesn’t know the Ashes but we will forgive him. One of the very good things about Netherland is the picture he draws of New York.
    But all that is in the past. Barrack on, Australia!!!!! Ricky Ponting rules. Kevin Pieterssen (despite his wonderful name) is merely a subject.
    Cheers,
    Kevin Peterson

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  2. I’d be surprised if he didn’t know the Ashes, Kevin, particularly as he studied at Cambridge and then worked as a barrister in London for 10 years (hence, the posh accent).
    I must admit, the first time you sent me an email and I saw your name in my inbox I did think of the English cricketer (although, technically, he’s a South African)! Sadly, he’s got an Achilles’ injury, so won’t be playing in the 5th test.

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  3. Okay, O’Neill probably knows the Ashes. If I do, he certainly does.
    Sorry that my near namesake will miss the 5th test but as an Austalian supporter (not rooter, please note), I will take any edge I can get.

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  4. The blurb at the back of the book was misleading – I kept trying to figure out what the book had anything to do with the post-9/11 world, other than the fact that it was based in NYC after 9/11. The disintegration of his marriage wasn’t in any way directly linked to 9/11 (if I remember correctly, things weren’t going great before 9/11), nor was any other event in the book.
    I found the character of Chuck well intriguing though, and kept trying to figure out what he was up to, with little or no joy.
    All in all, despite the misleading blurb, I really enjoyed the book, and thought the writing, in places was mindblowing. I’d read the book well before the Booker Prize longlist was announced last year, and I was fairly sure it would make the shortlist. Oh well – what do I know?

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  5. I like your thoughts on the main character’s “netherland” existence. Makes a lot of sense. But if he is trying to connect with America, playing cricket is not going to help. Cricket may be gaining in popularity, I don’t know, but it’s still a long way from being American. America just barely recognizes football (soccer) as a sport, let alone cricket.
    You can put me in the ambivalent column, too.

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  6. Sadly this book didnt do anything for me. I did like Chuck and actually wanted to read much more about him than the yawnalicious narrator. I did finish it though and tried to appreciate something from it, sadly nothing came.

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  7. Really? You don’t think it had any redeeming features at all? Not even the gorgeous writing or the excellent characterisation and the deft interweaving of the plot?

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  8. I don’t think he chose cricket as a means to feel American, but he wanted something that was familiar and gave him a sense of connection with other men.

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  9. I think the feeling of disconnection and fear that we all felt after 9/11 is apparent in this book, but it’s not a central focus. Also, even if their marriage wasn’t the strongest before the terror attacks, the aftermath of the tragedy certainly caused the split: she wanted to go back home; he didn’t.

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  10. Perusing your blog backlist. I really enjoyed this review and this book. I think you really captured the key elements of the book. I also agree, the gorgeous writing, the excellent characterizations, and the deft interweaving of the plot each alone make the book worth reading.
    And his cricket-style too, places him in a netherland, of sorts. He is there, connecting with the other players on an American field, but refuses to modify his style to suit the playing conditions. In important ways, he is not truly a part of that world either. It is actually quite a fascinating concept, an obviously upper class (social and economic) protagonist cast as an outsider experiencing a period of ennui.
    I read an article (“The Ascent of Man”) about his legal work on the death penalty. It too was beautifully written. I tried to get a link for you, but you have to subscribe to Granta to get it. It is in issue #72. It is worth looking up if you are a Granta subscriber (I currently am not.)

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  11. Kerry, that’s spot-on about the cricket: I hadn’t thought of it like that, but he was definitely an “outsider” in that world, too. Many of them didn’t even speak English.
    Thanks for the tip-off about O’Neill’s piece about the death penalty: I assume he’s against it? I’ll see if I can hunt it out. I used to subscribe to Granta many years ago but stopped when I realised I wasn’t really reading them; I was just sticking them on the TBR pile!

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  12. England is at 307 for 8 at the end of day one — not great, but entirely acceptable; even better with a quick two wickets on Friday.
    Barrack on, Australia!!!! England’s cricket is truly in Ashes.

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  13. It’s a respectable score, Kevin, so, as you suggest, let’s hope they loose a quick few wickets tomorrow morning.
    I think the phrase you’re looking for — instead of “barrack on” — is C’mon Aussie, c’mon! 😉

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  14. Ouch. Australia needs 466 runs on the last two days — then again we are 80 for no wickets after tea today.
    Either the greatest comeback in history or a tribute to an excellent English squad. I’m very sorry that I don’t have access to live television coverage tomorrow.
    Whatever on, Australia. It can be done.

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  15. It’s not looking good… The Ashes is not being shown on free-view TV so I can’t watch it, unless I fancy going to a pub full of English cricket fans, so I think I’ll just bury myself in Australian novels tomorrow and forget all about it!

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  16. I was in a small country bookshop at Airey’s Inlet yesterday, wanting to buy something to encourage them but they didn’t seem to have anything I hadn’t already got. Except this one, which niggled in the back of my mind without me really knowing why.
    Back home, I Googled to find out why the title rang a bell and was swamped by high profile reviews so I promptly labelled it ‘possibly sucked in by hype’ on Goodreads LOL. But now I’ve read your review, I’m glad I bought it anyway, it sounds interesting!
    PS I’m relieved to find that it’s not really about sport as well.

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  17. Lisa, I will be fascinated to see what you make of this book. I had forgotten about it until your comment, and having reread my review it has all come flooding back. I think it is one if those novels that has a lot going on and would make for an excellent book group read because there is so much to discuss. I know you are not a sports fan but this is less about the sport and more about the ways men (specifically outsiders) bond. It almost makes me want to reread this book.

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