Joseph O'Neill's Netherland was famously long-listed for last year's Man Booker Prize, attracting a flurry of support from mainly North American critics who loved the cricket element of the book. (The Vulture section of the New York Times has quite a good summary of the acclaim it garnered upon release. And President Obama also turned out to be a fan. )
But on the other side of the pond the response was more mixed. And if you dare check the Amazon.co.uk reviews you'll see the broad spectrum of views it's attracted which range from glowing five-star accounts to less-than-complimentary one-star assessments.
Thinking that the novel was about cricket, I picked it up at the start of the Ashes series last month hoping to get myself in the mood for a summer of competitive sport between two old rivals, Australia (my homeland) and England (where I now reside). Six weeks on, the five-match series is now at level pegging and the deciding final match will be played this coming Thursday, so what better time to review the book?
While Netherland could be regarded as a paean to cricket, this is not a novel about cricket. This is a novel about what it is like to be an outsider and living in the fringes, or as O'Neill's apt title suggests, in a state of being neither here nor there -- the netherland.
For while the protagonist, Hans van den Broek, chooses cricket as his refuge, there's a lot more going on here than the "gentleman of sport". Hans is an immigrant -- Dutch-born but educated in Britain and now residing in Manhattan, with his wife and young son. He's desperate to fit in and goes through the whole rigmarole of gaining his US drivers' license, if only to become that little bit more embedded in the culture. Connecting with people who play cricket in New York is yet another way he can "connect", albeit with an immigrant underclass. And, tellingly, the one man with whom he forges a tentative friendship, Chuck Ramkissoon, winds up being pulled out of a New York canal with his hands tied behind his back. (Note, this isn't a plot spoiler: O'Neill reveals this fact up front and much of the novel is about Hans recalling his relationship with Chuck, trying to pinpoint what it is about that man that could have resulted in someone wanting to murder him.)
Netherland has also been described as a post-9/11 novel, but again, this label has been slightly misconstrued. While the book reflects the kind of "netherland" residents in Manhattan might have felt in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, a kind of eerie state of no longer feeling comfortable in their homes, this isn't the sole premise of the book. O'Neill uses it as a vehicle to explain the disintegration of Hans' marriage, for while Hans is content to be "carried along by the dark flow of those times" his wife is not. She no longer feels safe in the city and decides to return to her native England, taking their infant son with her. Hans, unable to commit to such a move, finds himself living a kind of transatlantic lifestyle, dividing his time between New York and London. Again, it's a netherland existence, neither a New Yorker, nor a Londoner; neither a married man, nor a bachelor.
Ironically, having read this book, I, too, felt kind of ambivalent about it, not quite sure if I loved or loathed it. I finished it maybe a month ago but simply haven't had the time to review it, but strangely, with the passing of time, the story has coalesced in my brain and I've found myself thinking about certain elements. I wonder now what was holding Hans back, why he was passive on so many different fronts -- his friendship with Chuck, who clearly had a lot of dodgy things happening in his life; and his foundering marriage -- and let events wash over him without really taking any action himself. Was it a psychological netherland that constrained him, or would that be taking the netherland theme a step too far?
One of things that has stuck in my head is the sense of belonging Hans achieved by playing cricket in New York, even though some of his fellow sportsmen could not speak English and he refused to adapt his batting style to the "American way" which meant "the baseball-like business of slugging and hoisting". I loved that each weekend was spent in a van, travelling around the five boroughs, to play a "friendly".
We sat mostly silent in the van, absorbed into the moodiness that afflicts competitors as they contemplate, or try to put out of their minds, the drama that awaits. What we talked about, when we did talk, was cricket. There was nothing else to discuss. The rest of our lives -- jobs, children, wives, worries -- peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit.
As an aside, I was watching BBC Newsnight a week or two back which featured a story about the NYPD running a cricket competition to help improve relations with the city's ethnic minorities. "That sounds just like Joseph O'Neill's Netherland," I told my Other Half, who was watching it with me. Then, lo and behold, the presenter Gavin Esler interviewed, via satellite, O'Neill, who came across as one of the most articulate, gentlemanly and genuine author interviews I've ever seen. You can watch it here. It was enough to make me want to read more of his work, so if you've read any of this other titles, I'd love to hear your thoughts...