Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Netherland

The cover of the paperback copy of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland declares that it is not only a national bestseller but also the winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award and a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year, accomplishments that make it both a critical and popular success. Plus, President Obama loved it, and who doesn’t want to take book recommendations from the President of the United States? It recently took me a couple weeks to read Netherland, despite being a volume of 256 pages, and while there were points where I was ready to declare O'Neill my new favorite writer, at many others I was lost, wondering why he was writing what he was.

Netherland is the story of Hans, who is from The Hague, but is working in London's financial sector around the turn of the 21st century, when he and his wife Rachel, a lawyer, decide to relocate to New York. We know what that means — September 11 is going to play a role. In New York, Hans begins to play cricket, a sport he played in his youth, and which unearths memories of his childhood in the Netherlands.

Hans’ friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant, cricket umpire and businessman, and his relationship with Rachel, which is beginning a slow decline into irrelevance, are smashed together in Hans’ chronologically mixed up tale. O'Neill weaves the stories together in such a way that neither feels like it is being fully told — not necessarily a problem, but here I wished for more.

When I began Netherland, I was sitting in the library and read the first 10 pages before dinner. Afterwards, I told everyone at dinner how I just started the most brilliant book, one reminiscent of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, like this passage from the second page:
Now that I, too, have left that city, I find it hard to rid myself of the feelng that life carries a taint of aftermath. This last-mentioned word, somebody once told me, referes literally to a second mowing of grass in the same season. You might say, if you're the type prone to general observations, that New York City insists on memory's repetitive mower — on the sort of purposeful post-mortem that has the effect, so one is told and forlornly hopes, of cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions.
The next time I picked up the book, it felt like an entirely different work, one without the same magic I found in the introductory pages. I found myself caring less and less about Hans' mid-life crises and about nearly anything that involved Chuck. O'Neill devotes less time to the motley crew that resides at the Chelsea Hotel than I would like. But I kept reading, and there were sections where 50 pages would slip away with little effort, and I found myself re-reading lines, the surest sign that I admire an author's writing. While Netherland isn't the impeccable gem I thought it would turn out to be, it is a wonderfully-written novel, and a melancholy assessment of post-9/11 life.


  1. I experienced the same stop-and-start with this novel, and I lay the blame mostly on the structure of the book, which mirrors (deliberately, I'd say) the piecing together of memory and emotion into story within Hans' head.

    What got me, ultimately, was the palpable melancholy, which is powerful for *evoking* September 11th but not *using* it. It's easy to provoke a reaction by fictionalizing 9/11 - all you have to do is bring it up. This barely even makes explicit reference to it, even as the entire story treads in its wake.

  2. I agree with you about O'Neill evoking September 11, and in a way I see this as a good follow-up to Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children," which is set in the months immediately preceding September 11. Though I hoped Messud was going to stop her novel on September 10, she did an admirable job writing about the event itself.