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Joseph O’Neill: Netherland

Cricket and the 9/11 attacks are not two subjects normally conjoined but they are, very successfully, in this novel. Hans van den Broek is a Dutch national. He is married to Rachel, an Englishwoman, and they have a son, Jake. They have moved to New York for Rachel’s job but Hans has been able to find a good job as an energy analyst. They had an apartment in Tribeca when the 9/11 attacks occurred and had moved out of their apartment to the Chelsea Hotel. (Though the novel discusses the 9/11 events, O’Neill does not at any time describe the actual events or their immediate effects on the characters, except for a small discussion in London well after the event.) However, it is clear that the 9/11 attacks had a longer term effect on them. Though they have been authorised to return to their apartment, they do not. Then Rachel returns to London with Jake. Her reasons are varied. She is still scared of living in New York, feeling there might be other attacks. She is horrified with Bush’s plans for attacking Iraq, knowing full well that Iraq was not implicated in the 9/11 attacks. Finally, and most importantly (for this novel), she seems to be moving away from Hans. Hans stays but goes to London twice a month to visit Rachel and Jake.

Hans’ problem is that he wants to fit in but cannot easily make friends. He talks to people in the Chelsea Hotel but these are casual encounters. He has a friend where he works but this friend is fired and then disappears. Then, one day, while taking a taxi, he notices that the Pakistani driver has a cricket bat. He asks the driver if he plays and he tells him about the Staten Island Cricket Club, which plays at Randolph Walker Park. Hans joins the club and starts playing and making friends. When most people think of cricket, neither the Netherlands nor the United States come foremost to mind. But, as O’Neill tells us, both countries have a long cricket tradition. Hans had played in the Netherlands, in an old-established club, and had also played in England. However, we learn that the United States has been playing cricket for well over two hundred years and that the first international sports event for the country was a cricket match with Canada. Indeed, cricket had remained a fairly popular sport till World War 1. Now it is dying out and is the preserve of immigrants, with Hans’ team made up primarily of South Asians and West Indians. It is here that he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian of South Asian origin. We have already met Chuck, in the opening paragraphs of the novel. His handcuffed body had been found in the Gowanus Canal. Hans first meets Chuck when Chuck is umpiring a game between Hans’ team and a team of men from St Kitts. When things get nasty – a player produces a gun – it is Chuck who masterfully calms things down.

Hans get to know Chuck. He is involved in various deals, which Hans learns something about, but he is also interested in establishing a proper international venue for cricket, under the name of the New York Cricket Club, of which he is the president. He has purchased land at Floyd Bennett Field a former airfield, and has started developing it. As regards the cricket club, Hans soon becomes something like Chuck’s assistant but also his main friend, as they seem to spend time together. Hans is aware that Chuck’s business activities may be borderline illegal but is either very naïve or just does not wish to know. Along with Chuck, Hans’ other friends in the US are also foreigners – the cricket club members and the casual encounters in the Chelsea Hotel. We know what happens to Chuck, as we are told in he first paragraph, so the only plot element that needs to be resolved is whether Hans will get back together with Rachel or not.

In his review in the New Yorker, James Wood calls this book one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read. A book set in New York and London about a Dutchman, written by a half-Irish, half-Turkish man is a remarkable post-colonial book? Has Woods not read García Márquez, Rushdie, Fuentes and any of a number of real post-colonial authors? Yes, I know both Ireland and the United States were colonies but the UK, Turkey, US and The Netherlands were all colonisers and while the novel may examine the role of immigrants in the United States, that does not really make it post-colonial. However, my real disagreement with Woods is his contention that this book is remarkable. Yes, it was a clever idea of O’Neill to write a book about New York cricket in the shadow of 9/11. It is also well written and interesting but it does not fully work for me for several reasons. Firstly, if you are going to do a sports novel (and, yes, I know, this is not really a sports novel), we want to see more than the administration and social aspect, which is virtually all we see here. Apart from the shooting incident and Hans’ refusal to play US style cricket (i.e. hitting the ball in air, like baseball, as opposed to waiting for it to bounce, as in cricket), we see nothing of the games. Who wins? Who does well? Secondly, there is his marriage. Rachel, despite the role she plays in the book, is something of a shadowy character and generally seen in a bad light. We can feel little sympathy for her, except for a mother concerned about the safety of her child, as she always seem to be fairly unpleasant. So we don’t really care about his marriage and his relationship with Rachel. Thirdly, Hans’ ignorance of Chuck’s activities, even when told that Chuck is running a Trinidadian version of the numbers game and is up to no good, is really odd for such an intelligent man. If he really does not want to see it, then make something of it. If you produce a gun in a novel, then you must use it. O’Neill does not. But it is always hanging in the background. While it may or may not be the reason for Chuck’s death, we never know. In an interview, printed as an afterword, O’Neill makes much of the fact that he gave priority to voice over plot. This is all very well up to a point but, if you choose to have a plot, which he does, you cannot just ignore it, which he also seems to do. As Wood states, it is well written, though not exquisitely, as he claims, and it is an interesting story but it also seems to me to be a flawed work.

Publishing history

First published in 2008 by Fourth Estate