Joseph O’Neill’s third novel, Netherland, delves into the immigrant experience, post-9/11 New York, and troubled personal relationships. The novel has rightfully drawn much critical attention. It was long-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and won the PEN/Faulkner Award. In addition, Netherland was named by The New York Times as one of the top ten books of 2008.
O’Neill, born in Ireland, raised in Holland, and living in New York, draws on his immigrant experience, his crosscultural background, and his love of cricket to color the novel. In addition, he demonstrates a finely honed sense of post-traumatic stress, and the way such stress insidiously undermines individuals and relationships. Indeed, O’Neill seems to be saying, all who experienced such a cataclysm might find themselves as outsiders in their own lives.
O’Neill underscores the sense of isolation and paralysis that permeates the novel through every available means, including even his sentence structure. He uses long, perfectly crafted sentences, befitting his main character’s penchant for thinking rather than acting. As a result, the book is dense, internal, and even sometimes claustrophobic. The main character, Hans van den Broek, tells the story almost entirely through his thoughts and memories, severely limiting the point of view. The technique, however, is highly effective, an example of craft and tone mirroring content. Hans’s quiet adventure occurs entirely in flashback. Home with his family in London, years after the events of 2001, Hans learns of the death of Chuck Ramkissoon, a mysterious figure Hans knew during his time in New York City when he lived there without his family. From this point on, Hans reminisces about the time he calls “unbearable,” in New York, living at the Chelsea Hotel while his family lives in London. Hans also recalls his friendship with Chuck, the people who lived at the Chelsea, and his time playing cricket in New York. He also flashes back to earlier times, as a child in The Hague, as a young man in London, and as a man experiencing his mother’s death not long before September 11, 2001.
In flashback, Hans reveals himself to be a Dutch banker, married to Rachel, an Englishwoman and attorney, living in New York City prior to and immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He is profoundly affected by the collapse of the Twin Towers and finds himself lost, floating above his world. His disconnection to his life may also trace back to the recent death of his mother, his only relative except for his wife and son. At the time of the attack, his family lives in an apartment in TriBeCa, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. Forced out by the authorities, they live in fear at the Chelsea Hotel, unsure of what will happen next. Hans acknowledges that he is unprepared for this new New York, where everyone has an opinion about the world and current events, stating: “In short, I was a political-ethical idiot. Normally, this deficiency might have been inconsequential, but these were abnormal times.” He is insular, not unconcerned but overwhelmed, living primarily for his family and his work. His wife, finding herself unmoored as well, responds by withdrawing, as she regrets their move to New York and becomes increasingly hysterical about world events and the role of the United States. As a consequence, Rachel moves back to London, taking their young son Jake with her, leaving Hans at the Chelsea, bereft and alone.
Being alone is nothing new to Hans, however, who has been an outsider since he left The Hague, first for London and then for New York. O’Neill effectively develops the theme of Hans’s disconnection by placing Hans above the earth: He constantly floats over his home, either through Google Earth, or the London Eye, or on a plane. His sense of belonging exists only when he is with his family, which has been made even smaller by the death of his mother. His relief at Rachel’s statement to their...
(The entire section is 1,806 words.)