Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
Hans van den Broek, high-power equities analyst, is an eternal immigrant. Dutch-born and raised, London-employed and domiciled with British wife Rachel and their son Jack, Hans considers the family’s move to Manhattan as “good fortune” … until their brief American adventures unravel with 9/11, and Rachel and Jack too soon return over the Pond.
Alone in New York, Hans spends most of his free time with Chuck Ramkissoon, a charming, scheming Trinidadian transplant with grandiose dreams of creating a cricket empire. Part entrepreneur, part gangster, all poseur, Chuck takes Hans for the ride of this life … until Chuck disappears and re-emerges as a murdered corpse found disintegrating in New York’s Gowanus Canal on page 6. In the almost-300-pages that follow, Hans reconstructs and re-examines their unusual, entertaining, unclear relationship.
So now you get the gist, check out this 2009 PEN/Faulker-winning novel’s title, so cleverly fraught that whole reams could be written about just the single word. The most obvious reference is to Hans’ Dutch roots, that missing ‘s’ an homage to Hans’ own separation from his birth-country. [Author Joseph O’Neill, who is hapa Irish and Turkish, also spent time in the Netherlands, attending boarding school in the Hague.]
Consider Netherland also means ‘lower-land’ and ‘other-land’: Hans and family initially choose fashionable Tribeca in lower Manhattan to call home, until the hellish destruction of 9/11 moves them to the historic Chelsea Hotel; when Hans’ wife and son return to London, Hans is left in a netherland of loneliness and isolation, until he becomes a regular visitor in Chuck’s unique labyrinthine landscape, itself an outlying netherland of cricket fields, seedy buildings, international accents, and questionable business dealings.
As undeniably entertaining as Netherland proves to be, it’s also a sobering look at our 21st-century disconnect: For a brief time, Hans and Chuck convince us of their growing relationship, two souls thinking they recognize a kindred other. And yet, by story’s end, O’Neill will masterfully shatter such illusion, setting the characters adrift again, left searching with just a glimmer of hope of maybe finding and somehow connecting …