Netherland is a book by an Irishman with a Dutchman as its central character about cricket in New York. Of course, it’s about much more than that, but it is this unlikely combination that makes this a rather remarkable novel. I was in some ways reminded of Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, which has baseball as its focus, and O’ Neill’s book has been described as a great American novel as well. The novel is set in the years immediately following the events of 9/11 and follows the life, through a first-person narrative, of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker with a passion for cricket, married to an Englishwoman and living and working in New York. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks van den Broek’s marriage begins to falter, his wife moves back to England with their young son and he finds solace in the world of New York cricket.
It is an affectionate and ultimately optimistic book. It may well be a great American novel, but this is very definitely a post 9/11 America that is not only diverse, but also connected to the wider world. It is a story of loss and redemption, both tragic and comic in equal measure. O’ Neill’s writing is careful and, as a reader, I appreciated the time that he seems to have spent constructing each sentence. It is beautifully written, yet the quality of the writing also seems understated, almost passing you by without your noticing, until you stop reading and realise how good the last 20 pages or so were. I know very little about baseball and while that didn’t stop me enjoying The Great American Novel, I remember at the time wishing I did know more about the complexities of the sport. Likewise with Netherland, you don’t need to be a cricket fan to enjoy this book, but it probably helps.