Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
Netherland is a book that didn’t quite work for me, though there’s much to admire in it. The writing is exceptional—clean and fresh and not smacking of MFA writing programs as are so many “well-written” novels these days. The narrative structure is brilliant; it’s a first person narrative, in which the narrator, Hans van den Broek, roams back and forth in time, but always orients the reader with the slightest nod. Hans has a touch of the naïve narrator—well handled too—in that he observes so much more than he understands—or at least deals with. He’s an interesting character: raised in Holland, educated in England and then transferred to New York where he and his family experience the 911 attacks so close to their neighborhood that they have to move out to an hotel.
It’s the 911 experience that disorients Hans and his family, and eventually his wife insists on taking the child and going back to the UK to live with her family rather than stay in the Chelsea Hotel (which I note from biographical material is where O’Neill himself lives).
The run up to the Iraq war further tears the family apart and wife, Rachel, blames Hans for staying in a country that would illegally invade Iraq. Hans, an energy analyst, collapses emotionally in the face of her criticism and becomes increasingly isolated from his surroundings. In between his trips to London to visit his family, he spends his spare time playing cricket which is how he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, transplanted from Trinidad and determined to bring cricket back to the US…has the site for his cricket stadium all picked out. He’s clearly a “mover and shaker”—in fact for the Russian mob, but Hans isn’t really paying attention.
The 911 connection fades completely for me as the book goes on, though clearly Hans is stuck in its afterglow. Ramkisson is fascinating, and the reader picks up the cues about his life that Hans does not. The marriage difficulties are not very interesting. Rachel is not particularly likeable and Hans is unable to make a decision about anything in his life and certainly not about his marriage. Cricket becomes a “safe subject” for him, though he hasn’t Chuck’s passion to bring the game to the US.
The novel ends plows on to end with a whimper. This is a tremendously talented writer who hasn't really been able to focus his talents in this novel. In the end I was bored.