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MisterHobgoblin

Netherland

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This is a difficult novel to review. The novel is a stream of consciousness, rambling monologue on the part of Dutch businessman Hans van den Broek. The two returning themes in this monologue seem to be the shaky marriage to his wife Rachel, and his relationship with the mysterious Chuck Ramkissoon, a charismatic West Indian trying to introduce cricket to New York.

 

The cover makes all sorts of comparisons with great novels - The Great Gatsby, perhaps, or early Saul Bellow. It reminded me most closely of Salman Rushdie's Fury. Whilst much of the novel is set in New York, it is written very much from an outsider's perspective. Hans is not ambitious; is not career focussed, although he does seem to be very successful. This is not Carpe Diem. And at the same time, we don't see idle money waiting to make more money - there is a Dutch work ethic at play. Hans is drawn to Chuck not through being seduced by money, but rather a curiosity to see what the larger than life Ramkissoon is really up to. And as we see more of Chuck, we learn that he is dead and that he was a bit of a wide boy - a chancer with grand plans that were made before the ink had dried on the previous plans. Netherland does create a real intrigue through the Chuck character that offers time and space to explore the world of West Indian and South Asian immigrants to New York - and their struggles to play cricket in a land of baseball. Hans is never fully part of this set, and this is borne out by his unwillingness to change his cricket game to suit local conditions.

 

Rachel, the wife, though, is a bore. For reasons that remain obscure, she has decided not to live in New York, apparently in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Her reasons are probably more complex, but don't feel fully explored. Rachel seems to serve largely as a vehicle for introducing cameo characters such as Martin the chef and the Irish priest. There are other cameo characters too - the angel who lives in the Hotel Chelsea and Abelsky, for example. These characters don't seem terribly central to any storyline; they don't seem to do much other than inhabit a specific situation at a specific time, but they are quite amusing. In fact, the storyline itself could be seen just as a vehicle for various remeniscences and chance encounters.

 

If there is a criticism, it is that the language is sometimes too dense; too overblown. That can feel self conscious and can make the book drag. Interior monologues are tricky - the writer has to retain the reader's interest - and there are parts of Netherland where the language is a barrier to doing so. And the quote on the front cover, promising a post 9/11 masterpiece, drives up expectations of a work of major political import when in fact 9/11 is really rather incidental to the whole piece.

 

Overall, Netherland does have a familiar feel to it - the style is not new, but the content in focusing on the immigrant communities it does a convincing job of offering some insight into modern day New York. But for a short novel, it does drag a bit in parts.

 

It's a toss up between three or four stars, but the longer I think about it, the closer it gets to four.

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Rachel, the wife, though, is a bore. For reasons that remain obscure, she has decided not to live in New York, apparently in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Her reasons are probably more complex, but don't feel fully explored.
I saw part of it as being to give Hans a reason to run for his life, just like Chuck does in the story with the drugs. In this case, the running for his life is to try and put it all together again, having been repelled by the lure of American opportunity.

 

 

If there is a criticism, it is that the language is sometimes too dense; too overblown. That can feel self conscious and can make the book drag. Interior monologues are tricky - the writer has to retain the reader's interest - and there are parts of Netherland where the language is a barrier to doing so.
That was the only real problem I had with the book too. That it had everything but drive.
It's a toss up between three or four stars, but the longer I think about it, the closer it gets to four.
I was in the same position, plumping for four.

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I thought many of the set pieces in this novel were very well done: for example O’Neill’s descriptions of some of the other long-term residents at the Chelsea Hotel in N.Y. especially the surreal ‘Angel’. What also worked for me was the chapter where he describes working in the City and points up some subtle differences between that experience and that of New York: he doesn’t go for the easy points but how, for example, his London colleagues would talk of where they were just off to or where abroad they’d just returned from as if escape was part of the lifestyle whereas in New York holidays are barely discussed.

 

The cricket theme of course has been widely mentioned. This was quite interesting and novel in the context of New York but I must admit that the Chuck Ramkissoon character did bore me rather as, in the novel, he often bores Hans.

 

We know the scenario is post 9/11 but the issue is not forced and in the book Hans shies away when asked about it from making easy pronouncements on the events because, as he says, living there at the time did not make him an especially authentic commentator.

 

I got the feel of a modern northern European man – Hans is Dutch, married to an English woman – trying as best he can to hold on in there despite a rocky marriage and a Bush administration: the big bucks he earns are enabling of course.

 

The quality of the prose is excellent and never hackneyed

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I rather liked "Netherland", although I guess I was pre-disposed to be favourable to it given my fondness for both cricket and New York City, and O'Neill has, through his marriage of the two, found a way to give a fresh perspective on the city and some of its recent immigrants.

 

I agree Hans could sometimes seem rambling and verbose but I think that's a fair reflection of most people's internal monologues; it certainly is of mine!

 

As with most first person narratives, I tended to assume that Hans wasn't a reliable narrator, and in that sense I thought the portrayal of his relationship with Chuck was cleverly done and I wanted to know how his body came to have been dumped in the river. Whilst Chuck may have been involved in some shady activities, his efforts to build a cricket stadium in the city reminded me of some of the heroes of another outsider in New York, Peter Carey, although the picaresque elements of many of Carey's narratives is absent here.

 

I agree with Mr HG that the events of 9/11 didn't seem central to the book except to give a reason for Hans to have been staying in the Chelsea Hotel, a bohemian hangout that seems an odd choice of residence for a Wall Street analyst as straight as Hans.

 

Like others, after some cogitation I too think this is a 4 star book.

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I shared breakfast with an American businessman in Los Angeles when I was doing the big move. He started talking about this book about a Dutch man and cricket in New York and how much he had enjoyed it (he was of Dutch heritage himself, but at least 30 years older than Hans). I instantly recognized Netherland and we chatted about it for a while. It's a testament to the quality of the book that I was able to remember so much detail after so long - and in particular Chuck Ramkissoon, the larger than life entrepreneur whose ideas were bigger than his talent. If there weren't other books, this is one I would now be tempted to re-read.

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