Sunday, 5 October 2008

New Amsterdam

Every year C tries to get a couple of the contenders for the Man Booker prize under her belt before the winner is announced. One of the bookies' favourites this year was the long-listed Netherland by the Irish ex-patriot novelist Joseph O'Neill. However, against the odds, the book never made it to the short list, so C was no closer to having an opinion about this year's competition. Still, as a fêted book, I thought I'd give it a go.

Netherland is a primarily New York-set tale concerning a Dutch banker, Hans van den Broek, his English wife, Rachel, and a businessman formerly from Trinidad, Chuck Ramkissoon. Prompted in part by the events of September 11th 2001, but foreshadowed by earlier and growing lapses in communication in their marriage, Rachel leaves Hans in New York and returns with their son to stay with her parents in England. Alone in New York, and lacking direction, Hans returns to a childhood passion for cricket, and through this strikes up an ill-defined and unlikely friendship with Chuck. Chuck's dream is to open his own cricket pitch in New York and to create the foundations for the acceptance and growth of the game in the cricket-agnostic United States. As Hans gradually fumbles his way through his disintegrating trans-Atlantic marriage, his friendship with Chuck grows, but increasingly reveals questionable aspects to Chuck's "business".

Quite an interesting book this one, with a number of rather incongruous themes intersecting in its pages. A major theme (as outlined above) is an exploration of a dissolving marriage: the loosening of the bonds of Hans and Rachel's marriage, the no-man's land that opens up in their lives while they are separate, and their gradual coming back together. Another major theme is that of (male) friendship between Hans and Chuck: the first tentative encounters, the shared good times, but the distance that still persists between them as they keep separate the various facets of their lives. This latter aspect is used to give the novel some plot structure, by prefacing the novel with a flash-forward that reveals the demise of Chuck in questionable circumstances.

Where the novel really succeeded for me was in its beautiful prose. O'Neill is clearly an excellent writer, and he does a great job both describing characters and events, and by blending together the themes and time-lines of the novel. His writing really is effortless as he shifts from Hans' memories of growing up in Holland, to his solo predicament in New York, to his omniscient future self looking back on the events of his time with Chuck. Many writers would simply fragment the text through chapters to achieve this, but O'Neill simply skates from one strand to another and back again (is this why the novel's cover depicts an otherwise unconnected skater?). It's great writing.

Where the novel succeeded less well for me was what the point of it was. In blending quite disparate themes (post-9/11; male-female relationships; crime), it's not entirely clear what the reader's to draw from it. An obvious contrast can be drawn between the tense relationship between Hans and Rachel, who share much together (including a son), and the rather easy relationship that Hans forms with Chuck, who ultimately share very little in common. But this contrast is clouded by the connections to 9/11 and the criminal underworld. In the end, while I really enjoyed reading the novel, I just wasn't sure what to make of it. Each aspect on its own is telling an interesting story, but splicing them together just left me wondering if I was completely missing some key subtext.

Still, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever O'Neill does next.

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