Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

Harper Perennial, 2009. 247p

 Netherland cover

This one comes, if not pavilioned in splendour, then at least girded with praise. The “Richard And Judy Book Club” sticker on the front cover did give me pause, though, but it seems this novel wasn’t actually one of their selections. There is too, like the previous Harper Perennial book I read, an author interview appended after the novel’s conclusion. Is this an attempt to bulk out the page count? Plus there appears an advert for Galaxy chocolate. Strange.

The novel chronicles the New York and London travails of Dutchman Hans Van Den Broek, who starts the book living with his English wife and baby son in a New York hotel as their apartment is still uninhabitable after the events of September 11th 2001. They think (to my mind mistakenly) they are less safe in New York post those attacks than they had been before them. This attitude eventually leads to a banal marriage break up, though there is a reconciliation later.

The main focus, though, is on Hans’s relationship with an enigmatic Trinidadian immigrant to the US, Chuck Ramkissoon, who as well as having grandiose ambitions for the future of cricket in the US is a (very) minor New York gangster and into whose orbit Hans comes after meeting at a cricket match.

The netherland of crime contrasts with Van Den Broek’s oberland job in the financial sector and is not so remarkable but that of cricket is on the face of it a surprising aspect of a novel set in the US. It is less surprising that a Dutchman should be interested in the game as the Holland team is really quite good at it. (They will play in the next ICC World Cup.)

The narrative contains many long, apparently rambling, yet perfectly constructed sentences if, at times, with too many conjunctions peppering them. It takes a high degree of artifice to roll out such prose in the deceptively smooth manner O’Neill achieves. He is definitely a stylist.

This is all deployed to little effect, though. Nothing in the story was truly gripping. We learn early on that Ramkissoon is dead but this happens off page as it were, at a remove of thousands of miles.

O’Neill is, though, a master of digression and the non-linear. Conversations are interrupted by ruminations on past events and pages may pass before the talk resumes. Everything seems to set off a reflection on something else – all presented as a kind of stream of consciousness in a kind of literary equivalent of deferred gratification; sadly one where the pay off doesn’t compensate for the wait. There is also the problem that Hans isn’t really very likeable.

[And radiuses? Radiuses? I know online dictionaries give it as a plural but my (paper) one does not. So what is wrong with radii?]

While I agree Netherland does strive for significance, in the end I’m not at all sure the novel actually says very much.

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