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BOOK REVIEW: NETHERLAND
BY JOSEPH O'NEILL

We hope you enjoy this book review by Douglas R. Cobb.

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If you love reading grand, sweeping rags-to-riches stories that call to mind the best writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, you’re sure to love reading Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. The novel works on multiple levels, ostensibly telling the experiences of a European living in Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11. Hans van den Broek, the narrator, a native of the Netherlands, relates his life and adventures in New York City. His marriage is on the rocks, though he desperately wants to keep it going, and for his wife Rachel to remain in love with him. He finds solace and refuge in the sport of his childhood, cricket, and in a cricket-related friendship he develops with a Gatsby-like businessman, the Trinidadian immigrant, Chuck Ramkisson.

The tragic events of 9/11 are a backdrop to the story. The "tiredness" that Hans feels, which he describes as a "constant symptom of the disease in our lives at this time," is a tiredness that seems to have, to him, swept up all of the people of New York City. The tiredness is heightened for him because of the breakup of his family. As he colorfully puts it: Life itself had become disembodied. My family, the spine of my days, had crumbled. I was lost in invertebrate time.

Meeting Chuck Ramkisson and reviving his interest in cricket helps to give Han’s life meaning and a sense of purpose again, though his past in the Netherlands and his desire to be with Rachel and their son also provides much of the catalyst for the novel. Hans is somewhat like the narrator of The Great Gatsby, but he is wealthy in his own right. He is taken by the charisma that flows from the short-in-stature Ramkisson, and allows himself to be taken in by the small-time criminal’s charm and grandiose plans for heightening America’s interest in cricket and having matches televised around the world.

The Dutch were some of New York’s first settlers, and many places and cities still have Dutch names. They considered New York to be a type of new Netherlands, and during the course of the novel, Hans is reminded often about childhood memories from the Netherlands, such as skipping school to ice skate and his mother sometimes riding a bicycle to deliver newspapers for him. He sees New York City with the eyes of an immigrant, both with a sense of excitement and wonder, and also one of apprehension. With time, he grows to love it and think of it as a second home.

The fate of Chuck Ramkissoon is not a pleasant one. His dead body is pulled out of a river. His fate wasn’t all that unexpected by Hans. Netherland is largely framed by Hans’s looking back on the odd friendship that formed between himself and Ramkissoon and trying to make sense of it. It wasn’t the fact that Chuck Ramkissoon dared to dream, that he wanted to create "the only true cricket club in the country," that resulted in his death. It was that: His head wasn’t sufficiently in the clouds. He had a clear view of the gap between where he stood and where he wished to be, and he was determined to find a way across.

Netherland is not just The Great Gatsby warmed over - I don’t want to give that impression - but there are some similarities between Gatsby and Chuck Ramkisson, such as their wealth, their charisma, their power to draw others into their dreams of themselves, and their ties to crime. It wouldn’t be really a bad thing if a reinterpretation of The Great Gatsby was what O’Neill’s book was about, though, for Fitzgerald’s book is a classic of literature. I would instead say that the similarities that exist are more of an homage to The Great Gatsby than an attempt to redo it. Also, the story of Hans’s life apart from his friendship with Ramkissoon, the crumbling and eventual reconciliation of his marriage, his fond remembrances of his mother and of life in the Netherlands, and the life he makes for himself in New York City, as well as his relationships he forms with the motley tenants of his apartment building. Joseph O’Neill has a mastery over the English language that makes this book a joy to read. I highly recommend it.

REVIEWED BY DOUGLAS R. COBB

DO NOT REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE REVIEWER, DOUGLAS R. COBB


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