Friday, August 1, 2008

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill--a review


In the aftermath of 9/11, ex-pat Dutchman Hans Van den Broek feels adrift in New York. His wife, Rachel, needing to get away from New York, and needing a break from their marriage, moves back to her native England with their young son Jake. Hans, a victim of inertia, stays in New York, in their temporary digs at the Chelsea Hotel. Hans also falls into the sphere of enterprising, larger-than-life Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, an entrepreneur and a dreamer whose dealings are not all on the up and up. Chuck has the dream of building a state-of-the-art cricket stadium in Queens to attract world-class cricket to New York, where he believes the many immigrant communities would support it. Hans, who played cricket as a boy in Amsterdam, begins to play again with the mostly Indian and West Indian immigrants who play the game in New York.

Netherland is mostly about healing the breach in Hans's relationship with his wife that was caused by the trauma of 9/11, and about the relationship that Hans forms with Chuck, a person totally outside of Hans's normal sphere. This relationship grows partly because Chuck is not affected in the same way as Hans by 9/11; unlike Hans, Chuck is not stopped in his tracks, but continues to make strides forward in his life.

I had read that people compare this book to The Great Gatsby, and it's easy to see where those comparisons come from. Chuck Ramkissoon makes a great modern-day Gatsby, a Trinidadian immigrant go-getter with questionable business dealings, who is attracted to Hans for his legitimacy. Chuck is both a naive believer in the American dream, and is willing to be a hustler to achieve it. And Hans is similar to Nick Carraway, detached observer but also drawn into Chuck's charismatic world.

It is a really interesting portrait of two enigmatic men, one who speaks too little, and one who speaks too much, but both of whom, despite some indefinable connection they feel, remain mysterious to each other.

Of course, the two men are also mysterious to others--to the other people in their lives. O'Neill's portrayal of Hans is that of a man who thinks a lot, but says little. In his struggle to remain married to his wife, there are so many times when he remains quiet in the face of her judgements, opinions and pronouncements about their relationship. He often seems like a deer caught in her headlights. Hans tells us what he feels and thinks, but he often cannot tell his wife.

Chuck, though voluble, is just as enigmatic. He has hidden layers to his life, layers that Hans can only guess at, and that end up being dark and dangerous. Chuck's pursuit of the American dream, like Gatsby's, ends in tragedy. O'Neill's vision of the American dream, as elusive and fraught with hidden pitfalls, and as likely to end in failure as success, definitely provided me with much food for thought.

I found O'Neill's writing style to be accessible, yet multi-layered. I loved his evocation of New York, as it is also multi-layered. He takes us to Chelsea, Brooklyn, Queens, and up the Saw Mill River parkway to towns outside the city, as well as to London, Amsterdam and Trinidad.

And I have to admit, I love books where I read a passage and I think, "I've thought that. I really relate to that." There were many such times in this book. The most obvious one I can point out (and it's trivial in the story, really), is a point in the book when Hans is with his son, asking if he wants to learn to play cricket. Then Hans says, "He is only six. When he plays football he is still dreamy in the extreme and only kicks at the ball if woken up by a shout. It is like Ferdinand the Bull and the flowers." And that is exactly how I describe my son, who played soccer (football to Hans) for only two years. When he was six, on his first soccer team, and would stand out in the field dreaming instead of participating in the game, I used to describe him as "Ferdinand the Bull." I love it when something like that happens when I read a book--when it seems an author is speaking to me in particular.

I also enjoyed Hans's subtle journey from dark to light. At the beginning of the story, Hans is paralyzed and depressed, and O'Neill, through the crucible of New York and Hans's relationship with Chuck, takes him through the darkness to a kind of healing. I found O'Neill's New York, and the immigrants and the dreamers who fall under its spell, to be a very involving place.

11 comments:

stefanie said...

What an interesting sounding book. And thank you for reminding me of Ferdinand the Bull. I haven't thought of him for years, but I loved that story.

Gentle Reader said...

stefanie--I loved Ferdinand the Bull as a child, too, so it was one of the first books I bought when I had kids. My kids don't love it as much as I do, but the book's illustrations are really beautiful, and worth having at any age :)

And Netherland was really interesting, too!

Matt said...

Thank you for a insightful review. I've been having this book on my list since you first mentioned it. It reminds of the recent The Future of Love by Shirley Abbott. One of the story lines from that book focuses on healing of a marraige. Now I'll have to read this one. :)

Gentle Reader said...

matt--I've seen The Future of Love on several blogs--I'll have to look into it! Thanks!

Logophile said...

Excellent review. You make me really want to read this book!

Gentle Reader said...

logophile--it was a good read--a thought-provoking book :)

J.S. Peyton said...

You know I read a review of this book in the New Yorker, and while it sounded interesting I was thrown off by the apparent prominence of cricket in the book (cricket is not an interesting sport for me). Your review makes me think I wrote it off too quickly. Thanks!

Gentle Reader said...

j.s.--I almost wrote in my review "thank goodness this book isn't really about cricket"! In fact, I know no more about cricket now than before I read the book. I do know more about cricket fields, however, as he does focus a bit on those! But generally, this is not about the sport--otherwise I would have dumped it post-haste! So you're safe, if you choose to take this one on :)

litlove said...

This is the second review of this book I've read so far this morning! It must be good if my blogging friends are into it. I've heard of Joseph O'Neill but never read anything by him, so maybe this is the moment...

verbivore said...

This was a lovely review, I'm planning to read the Booker longlisters anyway but I suspect I will get to this one first.
I loved Ferdinand the Bull, what fun to be reminded of such a sweet story.

Gentle Reader said...

verbivore--so glad this made it to the Booker long list. And glad you're going to read it--looking forward to hearing what you think. I really have fond memories of reading Ferdinand as a child. I love the message of the book and as a shy child I was relieved that Ferdinand's style (and therefore mine) was being endorsed by the author :)