the observer Sun 15 February 2009
Even more than most works of fiction, Joseph O'Neill's acclaimed third novel addresses the quotidian. Netherland, which was longlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, looks at length at the things we all do without thinking about them or at least without admitting that we do. For this reason, some have accused it of being dull; for others, this is precisely what makes it so good. A scene in which Hans van den Broek, the bewildered narrator, uses Google Earth to hover over his son's new home in England reveals a sad and private obsessiveness that most of us can relate to. The book is full of moments like this in which O'Neill illuminates the everyday through his characters' thoughts and actions.
Narrative tension is not the point here. The denouement is largely revealed at the book's beginning with the discovery of a body in the Brooklyn canal. What instead takes centre stage is O'Neill's minutely observed portrait of post-9/11 New York and a few of its tangentially but intensely affected residents. The story revolves around Hans and his wife Rachel, an affluent couple who moved to New York from London in the late 1990s, but whose marriage is now in crisis.
Rachel, shattered by the terror attacks, has returned to London, taking their young son Jake with her, and leaving a bereft Hans to mull over what went wrong. During this hiatus in his life, in which he moves into the Chelsea Hotel (O'Neill's residence), he returns to playing cricket and so meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a hustler of Indian-Caribbean descent who is driven by the lofty ambition of building a cricket pitch in Manhattan.
Much of the story is told via the minutiae of the game. That may sound like a terrible idea, but O'Neill's infectious passion (he allegedly once persuaded Samuel Beckett to join his cricket club) makes even spin bowling interesting as he sheds light on this unexpected corner of New York culture.
But despite the consolations of sport, this is a melancholy, moving tale of an Everyman adrift in an age of change.