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Author uses cricket to capture the immigrant experience.
A Contrary review by Mike Frechette

Within a month of each other, two novelists have published fine books that focus on different segments of New York society. In A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Michael Dahlie traces the missteps and failures of a fumbling blueblood after he loses both his business and marriage. In Netherland,  Joseph O’Neill does exactly what his title implies and instead dips below this blueblood surface into the nether regions of the city’s population. Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman originally from The Hague, relocates to New York City in 1999 on an adventurous whim with his wife Rachel. When she and their son Jake abandon Hans for London shortly after 9/11, he becomes involved in the hidden world of New York cricket. In America, cricket is not a white man’s sport, and Hans becomes the reader’s guide to an underground inhabited by immigrants from places like Trinidad, Pakistan, and Guyana. Lost in the rubble of September 11 and a crumbling marriage, Hans embraces this world as a stabilizing force and, at the same time, encounters immigrants at once different from and similar to himself.

Hans narrates his story as a flashback from a future in which he has already reunited with his wife back in England. To a certain extent, the novel seeks to uncover the murder of Chuck Ramkissoon, a charismatic Trinidadian and league umpire whom Hans ends up befriending. Chuck’s importance in the novel is twofold. First, his murder adds an element of suspense necessary for readers who might be unenthused about cricket or sport in general. Secondly, Chuck serves as a foil to Hans and also typifies the American immigrant experience. More than Hans, he excitedly embraces America, its history, and its entrepreneurial opportunities to work hard and earn a fortune. Hans – more an expatriate than an immigrant to America – comes to the United States and simply builds upon financial wealth already accumulated with relative ease and only moderate enthusiasm.

With such a premise, it is no surprise that race and otherness figure prominently in the novel. Playing cricket – a marginalized sport in America – classifies everyone on the team as an other, including Hans. However, the experience is magnified for Hans’ minority teammates. As Chuck so humorously and eloquently puts it, “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.” Yet Hans – a white Dutchman – shares to a certain extent the sentiments of his teammates, especially once back in England. There he more keenly feels like an immigrant: “I am pissed off to rediscover, that… as a foreign person I’m essentially of some mildly buffoonish interest to the English.” Like his teammates, Hans himself lives as an outsider in a country not his own.

Despite the suspenseful plot and engaging themes, the prospect of a cricket-based novel might deter some American readers. To O’Neill’s credit, the book does not dwell on the intricacies of the game itself. Aside from a bit of jargon, cricket serves mostly as a way for O’Neill to address his more serious thematic concerns. Moreover, baseball enthusiasts will appreciate O’Neill’s romanticizing of a national sport. Like baseball for many Americans, cricket for Hans represents a link to his childhood, “a fine white thread running, through years and years, to my mothered self.” Just when his life and identity start to fragment, Hans rediscovers cricket and reconnects with his former self, giving him a sense of continuity during a turbulent time.

O’Neill does an expert job of interrelating the novel’s various topics and themes into a coherent story of loss and redemption. To address the issue of otherness through a suspenseful novel about cricket in America is the mark of a bravely original storyteller. Thanks to a subtle eloquence, O’Neill’s characters possess a captivating psychological depth, and as earlier reviews have noted, the avid reader will detect a Richard Ford influence. Like the Bascombe novels, Netherland contains a nearly perfect balance between humor and seriousness, suspense and reflection, guaranteed to satisfy a broad range of readers.

Reviewer Mike Frechette lives in Chicago with his wife Michelle.

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Joseph O’Neill

2008, Pantheon

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