Cricket in the new world: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

August 14, 2008 at 9:13 pm (Book review, books)

Just as I was starting to feel a little bit caught up on my reading, this year’s Man Booker Prize long list came out.

Sigh…

But what luck –  Netherland, a book I had just about finished, is on that list! Such fortuitous happenstances mean a lot to compulsive readers like me.  So – one down, twelve to go? In all honesty, probably not.

Meanwhile, what did I actually think of Netherland? I enjoyed this story of a young Dutchman’s sojourn in New York a great deal. Hans van den Broek has come to New York via London, where he had met and married Rachel. They then move to New York in order to pursue their careers; once there, Rachel gives birth to their son Jake.

Problems arise in their marriage, and Rachel and Hans decide on a trial separation, with Rachel returning to London and taking Jake with her. Their arrangement provides for Hans to fly back to see his wife and son every other weekend. Nevertheless, it’s still a separation. With great economy of expression, Joseph O’Neill conveys the tremendous pain Hans experiences as a result of this new. bound-to-be-unsatisfactory domestic arrangement. One feels that like so many first time parents, Hans has been ambushed by the force of his love for Jake. The separation – temporary though it may be – devastates him.

So Hans finds himself living a bachelor’s existence, without actually being single. He has no desire to play the field, in the sense usually implied by that expression. But the weekends without Rachel and Jake are very lonely. And there is one kind of playing field that does interest him: a cricket pitch. Where to find such a thing in New York? Well, it turns out that tournament cricket is played on, of all places, Staten Island.

Hans has been directed to this location by a new acquaintance, Chuck Ramkissoon. Originally from Trinidad, Chuck has plans for the creation of a cricket club in New York City. Following this venture – which he is certain will be a success –  he plans to go national. These are grand plans; all Chuck’s plans are grand. Some might even call them grandiose. But not Hans. He falls right in with Chuck’s schemes.

Chuck Ramkissoon is the kind of person that most of us encounter at one point or another in our lives. He is charismatic in the extreme, a real talker with tremendous powers of persuasion. And all the while such an individual is sending these exhortations your way, he is charming the socks off you. He surrounds you with warmth; you feel all but engulfed by his outsize personality. Accordingly, Hans proceeds to fall under Chuck’s spell. We he readers are left to speculate as to what  the outcome of this association will ultimately be.

Chuck and Hans both have vivid memories of radically different childhoods. Chuck’s stories of his boyhood in Trinidad are exotic and sometimes hair-raising. Hans’s recollections are softer and filled with a poignant sense of sadness and loss.

Upon the death of his mother, Hans returns to the Holland of his childhood:

“I stood at the window, waiting for the next arrival of light. The lighthouse had been mesmeric to my boy self. He was an only child and it must be said that at night he habitually stood at his bedroom window alone; but my recollection of watching the light travel out of Scheveningen contained the figure of my mother at my side, helping me to look out into the dark. She answered my questions. The sea was the North Sea. It was filled with ships queuing for entry to Rotterdam. Rotterdam was the biggest port in the world. The breakwaters were perpendicular to the beach and stopped the beach from being washed away. The jellyfish in the water might sting you. The blue of the jellyfish was the color indigo. Seven particular stars made the outline of a plow. When you died, you went to sleep.

What a vivid image the author conjures of a boy and his quietly devoted mother together in his darkened bedroom!

Some time later, Hans arrives  at this rueful bit of wisdom concerning his mother and his old playmates:

“An ancient discovery was now mine to make: to leave is to take nothing less than a mortal action. The suspicion came to me for the first time that they were figues of my dreaming, like the loved dead: my mother and all these vanished boys.

There is much writing of astonishing beauty in Netherland.  There are also numerous passages like the above, where you stop and look up in order to reflect on the profundity of what you’ve just read. These are the qualities that make great fiction memorable. I read Madame Bovary decades ago, but I’ve  never forgotten Flaubert’s wry observation concerning Emma; namely, that she had made the appalling discovery that adulery could be just as banal as marriage!

Two reservations: first, time is very fluid in this novel. I found myself confused sometimes about exactly when a scene or conversation was taking place. My other reservation has to do with pacing. Netherland’s second half stalled to a degree – at least, for this reader, it did. And I know why: it was the overabundance of cricket lore. For one thing, I could have used a glossary. For the other – well, I’m not much of a sports buff, and it was hard for me to empathize with Hans’s zeal for cricket.

That said, I still recommend Netherland. Joseph O’Neill’s eloquent tale of lost souls in New York, trying to make sense of their lives and even, if possible, to find real happiness, is going to stay with me for a long time.

[Joseph O’Neill]

8 Comments

  1. Christopher said,

    As an aficionado of cricket, I’ll have to read Netherland, if for no other reason!!

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Christopher, thanks for your comment. Of course, I should have guessed there would be cricket fans in the blogosphere. I actually enjoy watching the game – it was reading about it that was causing my eyes to glaze over!
    Having said that – I was delighted to be introduced to “Who Only Cricket Know.” I really like the poem!

  3. Stephen Pain said,

    I actually found the descriptions of Trinidad and its fauna & Chuck’s anecdotes about life there more compelling than the cricket – interestingly when it came to cricket, O’Neill used it as a postcolonial focaliser – we see the Other through the game of “Little Old England”. The main emotional centre was the relationship between Hans and Rachel, and this was done well – here there is a key difference between Netherland and the Great Gatsby, the Nick figure is not so detached from the love-interest. As one critic said, it is a three gulps novel – and that cannot be so bad for a literary novel.

  4. The New York Times weighs in on the Best Books of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of titles overall read by Your Faithful Blogger?  Four. Yep – four out of a hundred! They are: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri,  When Will There Be Good News? by […]

  5. “Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This title was recently named by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of this year. […]

  6. Washington Post Book World, postscript « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] brings the welcome news that Joseph O’Neill has won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner fiction award for Netherland, a novel that I greatly enjoyed.  I’ve long appreciated the Post’s generous coverage […]

  7. drmony said,

    in india cricket is like a religion and i die for cricket

  8. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Rebels with a Cause: None. In Economic Survival: None. In Immigration: One: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a book I enjoyed but did not consider to be about immigration – at least, not primarily. In […]

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