With this sweeping tale of contemporary New York, Joseph O'Neill - Irish-born, raised in the Netherlands and now living in the US - has ridden a wave of critical praise onto the Man Booker long-list. O'Neill's self-absorbed first-person narration contains echoes of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, yet it is hard to fathom the hype generated by this uneven novel. Netherland is simultaneously fun and deadly serious; it has moments to savour and, occasionally, to marvel at. But it is ultimately a partial and periodic success.
Hans van den Broek is a Dutch equities analyst who stays on in New York after his English wife, Rachel, and their son return to London. Lonely and dispirited, he gravitates to Sunday cricket matches that are held, almost unnoticed, throughout the city. He shares the field with immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean: "I was the only white man I saw." One day Hans meets Chuck Ramkissoon, an expat Trinidadian who (as we quickly learn) will end up dead in a canal. A loquacious entrepreneur, Chuck has grand plans for cricket in America.
Netherland ponders often - but unremarkably - the intricacies and mysterious allure of the sport. It's as if O'Neill is leaning for support on the mantra ‘cricket's a funny game' - too funny for America. Still, there are insights into the migrant experience and the American Dream. And at times the prose possesses a melancholy beauty, most notably when Hans tries to make sense of his bloodless relationship with Rachel. Elsewhere, various characters and events - Rachel, September 11, the Iraq war, the wacky inhabitants of the Chelsea Hotel where Hans lives, and his cricket-infused childhood - seem like props for Hans to self-consciously bump into and then mull over. He is an unendearing and limp dreamer, although his capacity for self-reflection does allow O'Neill to offer an outsider's appraisal, sharp but awed, of modern America.
The best thing about the book is Chuck Ramkissoon, dodgy yet likeable and full of self-justifying stories and moneymaking schemes: "his modus operandi: wrong-foot the world." Chuck's odd, unsettling friendship with Hans and his wonderfully ludicrous belief that cricket will conquer the US carry Netherland through its weaker stretches.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription