Had I read Netherland in either New York or London I would no doubt have been overcome by a feeling of nostalgia for my adopted hometown of The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government and the International Court of Justice, famous for the Mauritshuis which houses Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and beloved because of its closeness to the beach, where Joseph O’Neill himself spent part of his childhood and which the novel’s main character Hans van den Broek reminisces about in various passages.
After making a career for himself in London Hans van den Broek, a Dutch equities analyst, moves to New York with his English lawyer wife Rachel. Following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center he and his wife and their newborn son move out of their TriBeCa apartment into the Chelsea Hotel. Shortly after that his wife returns to London, taking their son with her, because she fears another terrorist attack and considers London a better place to raise their child, or so she says, but it is all too apparent, if not to Hans, that there is more at stake.
Feeling lost and lonely and not knowing what to do with his spare time one day, after noticing a cricket bat inside the trunk of a taxicab, Hans takes up cricket, which he played competitively during his high school years in The Netherlands. His fellow players are equally lost souls from around the world, India, Pakistan, the Caribbean. One day he meets Trinidad born Chuck Ramkissoon, who will become his best friend and part-time driving instructor. Ramkissoon is a bit of a shady character, as Hans discovers as he drives around New York, unwittingly doubling as his chauffeur. He dreams of building a grand cricket stadium in New York and to one day host a test match between India and Pakistan. As Ramkissoon explains on more than one occasion cricket is more than just a sport, it is “a lesson in civility” (p. 13). “All people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilised when they’re playing cricket. What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this.” (p. 204).
Netherland is a perceptively crafted novel and the references to Google maps give it a contemporary feel. It is an effortless read and while I quite enjoyed reading it, I frequently found myself thinking what a great novel it could have been if O’Neill had been a little more daring in his choice of a protagonist. I know that it has won the PEN/Faulkner Award and I know that it has been almost unanimously praised, but perhaps that is precisely the problem. The novel nestles itself comfortably in the nicely made corner lounge of current taste.
At various points I even got slightly annoyed. Hans van den Broek’s job as a financial analyst feels very much like a pretext to free him of financial worries and allow him to fly up and down to London every other weekend to meet with his wife and son. His move to the Chelsea Hotel feels like another pretext to get him to meet some freaky characters. It would have been interesting if O’Neill had let Hans move into an apartment on the Upper-Westside, and had him meet with his neighbours there, everyone has a story to tell. It would have been interesting if O’Neill had devoted his talent as a writer to a description of Van den Broek’s working life, of which we learn very little and if instead of making him a financial analyst he had given him some mid office or back office job, less sexy perhaps, but all the more interesting for that. Instead we get page after page of relationship drivel. After living apart for two years or so Van den Broek moves back to London and with the help of a marriage counselor he and his wife Rachel get their relationship going again. Sigh. At some point Van den Broek even gives relationship advice to one of his junior associates. Yawn.
And so Chuck Ramkissoon is by far the most interesting character. He is the enigma at the heart of the novel. His monologues are the spice that brings the novel to life and save it from being perfectly bland. The best parts are the descriptions of New York’s outer boroughs, the netherlands of the title, where Ramkissoon takes Van den Broek on his driving lessons. It is here too that O’Neill’s precise Ian McEwan-like prose shines.