In My Good Books: ‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is a fragmented narrative that depicts love, politics and nostalgia, as seen through the eyes of Hans van den Broek. Hans is a middle-aged realist who is battling the chaos of New York-living during a confused stage in his life. The narrative of Netherland is propelled by the friendships of Hans as he navigates his present urban existence, yet Hans constantly finds himself seeking his childhood memories and passions. The title, Netherland, is almost certainly inspired by Hans’ Dutch origin, however on first reflection I was struck with a sense of the Disney portrayal of ‘Neverland’. ‘Neverland’ is the fictional island on which one can never age, and thus lives in an eternal childhood. To an extent, Hans similarly resists the reality of his ageing as he yearns for his simpler childhood and remains intent on continuing his childhood passion of cricket. So fundamentally, Netherland portrays the struggle of a man in a dangerous and fragile adult world.

While Netherland is simple to follow, the narrative is not linear as the novel follows both the present life of Hans, and equally his memories. The novel begins with Hans and his wife, Rachel, living in a New York apartment with their son, Jake. The dynamic between Hans and his wife is far from idyllic, as their relationship appears stagnant and incohesive. Following the pivotal 9/11 attack, Rachel is insistent that a return to London is the safest thing for her and Jake, conveniently forcing a separation of husband and wife. The socio-political commentary of Hans and Rachel explores the 21st century view of terrorism and the fear of the future, as they try to understand whether “we were in a pre-apocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the thirties… or whether our situation was merely near-apocalyptic”. In his sudden loneliness, Hans finds consolation in his childhood sport; cricket. The novel soon revolves around Hans’ cricket club as he meets a diverse range of New York inhabitants while simultaneously revisiting his past experience of the sport. Through cricket, Hans meets the striking character of Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck reveals himself to be an enterprising, yet potentially dangerous ally as Hans is drawn into his mysterious world.

The diversity within the cricket club provokes an exploration of racial treatment and attitudes within New York in the 21st century. Chuck uses cricket as an analogy to depict the attitudes towards black men. Cricket is seemingly an unusual sport within the USA, an outcast from the common baseball and football. Thus Chuck asserts; “You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Put on white to feel black.” This depicts the ostracization of the black man, and the cricketer, while also highlighting the arbitrary nature of colour. Throughout the novel, O’Neill remains transfixed on the experience of the minority individual such as through the comical character of Vinnay, an Indian friend of Hans’. Thus, while Netherland is an approachable novel, I felt that it constituted an in-depth exploration of both race and national stereotyping.

Hans turns to cricket as a means of distraction and comfort. Through this sport, he discovers a mosaic of different cultures, ages and personalities that act as a support system for each member. For me, this created a simultaneously subtle, yet powerful, advocacy for the importance of sport within society. Through sport, Hans finds both meaning and a sense of community that fills the void left behind by his family. O’Neill’s message is pertinent for readers of all ages and abilities as it promotes the union of individuals.

Similarly, Netherland explores the complexity and difficulty of familial and romantic relationships. Almost humorously, Hans experiences fleeting moments of sexual intimacy that are described in his omnipresent factual monotone. Equally Hans’ and Rachel’s marriage is arguably realistic as they battle with complacency and lack of communication, yet ultimately seek reconciliation, as the ending offers an almost conventional ‘happy ending’ for the family. Overall, I would describe Netherland as a book packed full of 21st century issues including political unrest, marital breakdown, loneliness and friendship, while ultimately revealing the private thoughts and experiences of a “normal” man.

-Hattie Hansford 



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