Hans van den Broek is a man adrift. Recently separated from his wife Rachel, who has returned to her native England with the couple's young son, Hans is in his mid-30s and still living out of a suitcase in the Chelsea Hotel in 2003, a temporary situation that seems to have become permanent after Hans and Rachel fled their Tribeca loft in the wake of September 11, 2001.
Left behind by his family in a city that is not his home, Hans, a native Dutchman who has grown fabulously wealthy as an oil futures analyst in Manhattan, is still flummoxed by his quasi-adopted country and its inhabitants. And even as he attempts to make sense of everything from turns of phrase to the particularly aggressive style of the American walk signal at traffic lights, Hans tries to make sense of himself.
An analyst by trade, Hans is also an analyst by nature, noticing small details in the people and places he encounters, and devoting not insignificant efforts on analyzing himself, particularly the remoteness he feels not only from his family but also from his youthful self, one who had meaningful relationships, found joy in life and excelled at the sport of cricket.
So when Hans connects with an energetic, charismatic Trinidadian immigrant named Chuck Ramkissoon, his subsequent discoveries reconnect Hans not only with a little-known subculture of New York but also to his youthful past. Through Chuck, and with his involvement in the New York Cricket Club, Hans encounters immigrants from virtually every English-speaking country in the world as they meet for games on makeshift cricket fields carved out of every spare corner of the five boroughs and beyond. Hans's reunion with his beloved sport brings him back to his past, to his origins and possibly to himself.
NETHERLAND is Joseph O'Neill's third novel. A native of Ireland who has lived in the Netherlands for many years, O'Neill certainly understands the feeling of estrangement from one's own country as well as the feeling of being an alien in one's adopted homeland. The symbolism of exile is apparent throughout this elegiac, thoughtfully-paced novel --- not only in the shape of cricket but also in images of migratory birds, shifting ice floes, and the constantly moving and shifting population of New York City.
The city itself is practically a character in the novel, described alternately by Hans, the narrator, with grudging admiration, genuine fondness and a sense of loss as he prepares to leave the city forever. As the city moves through the seasons during the winter and spring of 2003 and beyond, the narrative alights on tiny moments --- a degrading incident at the DMV, a surprise sprout from a long-forgotten flower bulb, the reawakening of the city's homeless population --- that not only point to a profoundly observant understanding of the city but also mirror Hans's shifting consciousness.
Although NETHERLAND, with its meticulous details, heavy self-reflection and at times ponderous pace, may not be a novel for everyone, it will speak strongly to those who value carefully crafted sentences, wise observations and moments of startling insight.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 12, 2011