Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is often compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The two books do share a superficial similarity. Both take place in and around New York and both are narrated by an outsider. Both are centered on a fantastic character, one that inspires admiration in other men, but this character is not the narrator. There the similarities end.
Though born in the Hague, Netherland’s narrator is a Londoner, living in New York, where he works in finance, with his English wife and their young son. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, their marriage enters a period of trouble, and the narrator’s wife returns to London, where she says she’ll be safe, with their son. The narrator stays in New York, moves into the famed Chelsea Hotel, and becomes involved with a cricket league.
Cricket, and the mix of men who play it, make up much of the novel. The narrator meets cricket enthusiast, one-time umpire Chuck Ramkissoon who drives a cab, runs an illegal lottery, and plans on building a cricket stadium in New York to convert America into a cricket loving country. When the narrator hires Chuck to teach him how to drive so he can get an American driver’s license, he begins to spend time with Chuck and to learn more and more about his illegal business dealings, his family history, and his devotion to cricket. Along the way, the reader meets several other unusual characters, the narrator lives in the Chelsea Hotel after all, but none of these come to life the way Chuck Ramkissoon does.
Netherland drew me in at first. The story is not exciting nor very compelling. It’s difficult to understand why the narrator stays in New York when his family has moved back to London, and attempting to bring cricket to America is a charming idea, but it’s difficult to accept that anyone who knows the country at all would ever see it as possible. (Americans don’t even pay attention to World Cup Football, let alone cricket.) But in spite of all this, I was drawn in to the narrator’s story, so much so, that I read 80 pages before realizing that I needed to get Dakota her dinner. Reading an outsider’s take on one’s country is inherently intriguing and the post September 11 setting makes it easy to empathize with the characters. Unfortunately, after feeding Dakota, I was never re-drawn in to the novel. So reading the rest of it became something of a slugfest.
Netherland is very well written, and it probably has something profound to say about America after September 11, but it lacks a narrative thread to pull the reader through it all. We learn in the novel’s opening scenes that Chuck Ramkissoon has been found dead in a canal, but this mystery does not become a reason to read the novel. Instead, the narrator jumps back and forth in time, revealing what he knows about Chuck, describing what his life in New York was like, discussing the changes in his relationship with his wife. Plot elements that could generate suspense are undermined by flash forwards and flashbacks so much so that would could have become a mystery is turned into a fictional memoir without much dramatic tension. Memoir works best when it draws the reader in.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008 when it was nominated for the Booker Prize. I don’t recall who won that year, but it wasn’t Mr. O’Neill. In those days few Americans were intersted in the World Cup, but that has changed.