Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Book Review - Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2008                          ISBN 9780307388773

Wow. What a book. My sister has urged me for some time to read this book, and now that I have, it won't leave me alone. I'm not sure where to start describing the book and my reaction to it - a book that deals with issues of the heart, of politics, of immigration, of despair, and of hope.

But perhaps I'll start with cricket. Even as I think about it now, my breath is taken away by the thought that an author of a literary novel based in New York would use cricket as a major vehicle for the text. The fact that O'Neill does this and produces one of the best modern novels I've read is a great achievement.

The novel begins by introducing us to Hans van den Broek, a Dutch futures trader who moves from London with his English wife and young son to New York. Through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, we learn that Hans and his family were evacuated from their Tribeca apartment owing to 9/11, and were living in the Chelsea Hotel when Rachel announced she was leaving the marriage to go back to London. What follows in the book is us travelling to the depths of Hans' despond with him, and then watching his slow climb out.

One of the things that helps Hans deal with his situation - and helps him use up time that otherwise would be spent lying on his floor in the Chelsea Hotel - is playing cricket. Hans  loves the game and played it in his youth in Holland, where there is a small but vibrant cricket community. He comes to play for the Staten Island Cricket Club, where he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a native of Trinidad, who is umpiring a game.

This book has been compared to The great Gatsby, and if it bears that comparison, then Ramkissoon is the Gatsby character. He has a grand plan to create a cricket stadium in New York, and bring the world's best players there for tournament cricket. He believes that he can make a killing on the TV rights that would be generated from such an event. This is not the only scheme Chuck is involved in - Hans learns over time that Chuck also runs a gambling ring, and is not above some physical persuasion to get money that's owing him. So it is not really surprising that his body is fished out of the Gowanus Canal: this is the first we hear about Chuck Ramkissoon in the novel, on page 5, which leaves the reader intrigued about his character throughout the whole book.

We are not so intrigued initially about Hans van den Broek, who seems to be one of those ineffectual modern men who lets life happen to him: not communicating effectively with his wife, or with anyone else. However, his wry observations and thoughtfulness gradually capture the reader, and the pain of his estrangement hits hard, and the reader is filled with hope when it looks like he might win Rachel back, and with joy when he takes control of his situation and does in fact win her back. Hans at the end of the book has come to the realisation that - although back with Rachel and his son Jake - life is not the same:  this is a new chapter opening, just as other chapters - such as his time with Chuck, or at his workplace in New York - have come to an end.

So this book is a meditation on life and love; it is also a meditation on politics and the effect it has on people - one of Rachel's reasons for leaving New York is that she can't cope with 9/11 and the subsequent US policy and activity around Iraq. Hans has a more nuanced view of the situation, but his inability to organise it into a coherent statement causes him difficulties. He is more interested in the politics of the personal. Through Chuck and cricket, Hans is drawn into a world of immigrants, all trying to live a new life and stay connected to the old - cricket being one way they do so, almost wilfully flipping the bird to their new home by playing the most colonial of empire sports. One guesses that these people moved to the US for a better life, but it's hard to say if they have achieved it. Chuck though, is sure that his trajectory is upward, and his confidence infects others, although Hans never falls for Chuck's spin.

Hans realises when he's alone that there are many lost people in New York, and that in fact they are drawn to the place by virtue of being lost. His decision to move back to London and try to save his marriage is his step towards the future he wants rather than the future that is being thrust upon him.

In many ways it is Chuck that saves Hans - Chuck and cricket. Chuck's fantastic dreams, and his willingness to work for them, infects Hans and drives him to take action to get what he wants. For a cricket lover like myself, it is not hard to understand that Hans finds in the game many answers to the questions that life throws at us, for cricket is very much like life in the ways it affects its players. Hans in some ways struggles with the world, with the USA, and with his wife, because they do not understand cricket. "I'm saying that people, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they're playing cricket....Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this. Everybody who plays the game benefits from it." So says Chuck towards the end of the book. And what he says is true. Unfortunately the following, spoken by the character Chuck was hoping would help him bankroll his venture, is also true: "There's a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket."

Thankfully for Hans, he realises before it's too late that the pipe-dream is actually his and Chuck's cricket activities, and not his marriage. After all, at the end of the day cricket is only a game.

Most highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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