Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

"Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill (Harper Perennial, 2009)

I'm told I might have been to poetry workshops with the author long ago. Small world.

The main character, Hans, was born in the Netherlands. After a while in London he moves to New York with his wife Rachel, has a child, Jake. Rachel decides to return to England with Jake. Alone in New York, Hans meets a man who dresses as an angel and a man who wants to build a cricket arena called "Bald Eagle Field".

Slowly cricket takes over - the orderliness and the flatness (which the Netherlands has) contrasting with New York. Through the culture of cricket he expresses his aspirations

  • "For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature.// Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist's attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action", p.144
  • "once, chasing a ball, I nearly tripped over a hidden and, to cricketers, ominous duck", p.5 (non-cricketers might find this obscure)
  • "the American adaption is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison towards the batsmen and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors", p.7
  • "Softball, my teammates and I observed with a touch of snobbery, was a pastime that seemingly turned on hitting full tosses - the easiest balls a cricket batsman will ever receive", p.8
  • "it's my belief that the communal, contractual phenomenon of New York cricket is underwritten, there where the print is finest, by the same agglomeration of unspeakable individual longings that underwrites cricket played anywhere - longings concerned with horizons and potentials sighted or hallucinated and in any event lost long ago, tantalisms that touch on the undoing of losses too private and reprehensible to be acknowledged to oneself, let alone to others", p.116
  • On p.170 "what counted was that I'd done it. I'd hit the ball in the air like an American cricketer; and I'd done so without injury to my sense of myself". He begins to dream of a time when "everything is suddenly clear, and I am at last naturalised"

Fatherhood is a theme, as is normalisation/socialisation.

The story's not told sequentially. Flashbacks are easily triggered. On p.190 on an NY roof, he flashes back to when he was 12, which makes him recall another time he recalled that incident. In one flashback he recalls a lighthouse he watched from his bedroom window as a boy, his mother sometimes at his side "She answered my questions. The sea was the North Sea. It was filled with ships queuing for entry to Rotterdam. Rotterdam was the biggest port in the world. The breakwaters were perpendicular to the beach and stopped the beach from being washed away. The jellyfish in the water might sting you. The blue of the jellyfish was the colour indigo. Seven particular stars made the outline of a plough. When you died you went to sleep." p.84. 3 pages later it says "I came ... to rely on Rachel as a human flashlight. She illuminated things I'd thought perfectly well illuminated."

The main character easily retreats into himself. He's thoughtful, quiet, wanting to "make sense" of his life in the way he sees others do.

  • "The very idea that one's feelings could give shape to one's life had become an odd one", p.121
  • "Eliza put away the albums. People want a story,' she said. 'They like a story.'", p.126
  • "'So,' he says, 'what's the story?' // 'There is no story,' I say, sitting next it him. / He looks at me with a cocked head, as if I've thrown down a challenge. 'There's always a story,' he says", p.128

Eventually he returns to London

  • "Rachel saw our reunion as a continuation. I felt differently: that she and I had gone our separate ways and subsequently has fallen for tird parties to whom, fortuitously, we were already married", p.222
  • "she reaches for my hand and squeezes it./ Strange, how such a moment grows in value over a marriage's course. We gratefully pocket each of them, these sidewalk pennies, and run with them to the bank as if creditors were banging on the door. Which they are, one comes to realise", p.177

The language is rich. There are little analogies and also sections where the prose takes off. Sometimes, e.g around p.123, we get 2 or 3 sentences per page. Here are some examples

  • "I grew to mildly enjoy the angel's unexpectedly serene company. He and I and the murmuring widow in the baseball cap sat in a row like three crazy old sisters who have long ago run out of things to say to one another", p.34
  • "The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits", p.65
  • "There obtained a national transparency promoted by a citizenry that was to all appearances united in a deep, even pleased, commitment to foreseeable and moderate outcomes in life. Nowadays, I gather from the newspapers, there are problems with and for alien elements, and things are not as they were; but in my day - age qualifies me to use the phrase! - Holland was a providential country", p.86
  • "I had him down as a lover of contingencies and hypotheses, a man cheerfully operating in the subjunctive mood. The business world is densely margined by dreamers, men almost invariably, whose longing selves willingly submit to the enchantment of projections and pie charts and crisply totted numbers, who toy and toy for years, like novelists, with the same sheaf of documents, who slip out of bed in the middle of the night to pitch to a pyjama'd reflection in a windowpane", p.99
  • "I suspect that what keeps us harmless from [daydreams] is not, as many seem to believe, the maintenance of a strict frontier between the kingdoms of the fanciful and the actual, but the contrary: the permitting of a benign annexation of the latter by the former, so that our daily motions always cast a secondary other-worldly shadow", p.100

Typo in p.90 - "oudoor".

Other reviews

  • Christopher Tayler (Guardian)
  • James Wood (New Yorker)
  • New York Times (Dwight Garner)
  • Independant (Boyd Tonkin) - "Overpraised on its arrival, Joseph O'Neill's elegiac and engaging novel of the quest for home and roots then suffered a backlash that saw it branded as a slick epitome of conventional "literary fiction". Forget the quarrels, and enjoy a smoothly satisfying ride."
  • Benjamin Kunkel (London Review of Books)
  • Cathleen Medwick (O, The Oprah Magazine)
  • Zadie Smith (New York Review of Books)

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