New Irish writer may be Booker contender
By Joseph O'Neill
(Fourth Estate, €14.99)
Joseph O'Neill is an Irish barrister living in New York. He is the author of two previous novels and the acclaimed memoir Blood-Dark Track. This new novel, Netherland, has won lavish advance praise from Sebastian Barry and Joseph O'Connor, who called it the great American novel of the moment, a book with "the vividness of breaking news".
I confidently expect this novel to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It wouldn't surprise me, though, if O'Neill fails to win the award -- immediately after Anne Enright, the jury may baulk at yet another winner from Ireland. Nor would it surprise me if they fail to appreciate, or even to notice, the profoundly Hibernian character of the book -- in its barefaced tragi-comic oddity Netherland is, in every good sense of the word, more than a bit Irish.
For one thing, the plot is as intricately snaky as a capital letter in the Book of Kells. The narrator is a Dutch banker, Hans van den Broek, who is living with his wife in London in 2006. Out of the blue he gets a phone call from the New York Times asking for a comment on the death of a friend. It has taken some time to identify this friend, the memorably named Chuck Ramkissoon, because he has been submerged in a canal for some two years with his hands manacled behind his back.
What could this small-time builder and big-time talker from Trinidad have in common with an introverted Dutch banker? The answer is cricket.
Hans and Chuck become friends when, along with a multinational ragbag crew of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, they get together to play the game on bumpy pitches in remote boroughs of New York. One reason why Hans is free to devote so much time to cricket is that he has fallen out with his wife -- the atmospheric funk of post 9/11 New York is too much for her and she has fled to London with their son. In her absence, Hans moves into the Chelsea Hotel, the famously bohemian digs where Bob Dylan lived and Dylan Thomas prepared to die. Meanwhile, Ramkissoon is seized of a madcap notion to develop a site out in Flatbush as a major cricket stadium. Although Hans sees the flakiness of the project, he is persuaded by the idealism -- embracing the universal game of cricket would save the Yanks from their continental insularity -- and goes along with the plan. But Ramkissoon gets involved with decidedly shady people, including a racist Russian hoodlum called Abelsky, and ends up in the canal.
We never discover the identity of the murderer -- this is a whodunit without a who -- but that is part of the purpose of the book: the political violence of our times, the personal unease that follows from it, but above all the constantly shifting and strange glamour of the world cannot be explained, only apprehended. By the end of the book Hans and his wife are reconciled and taking a ride on the London Eye with their son. But, the reader realises, the war is still on in Iraq and soon terror will explode in the Underground. Hans remembers another trip, on the Staten Island ferry with his mother, when he saw the Twin Towers with their "vertical accumulations of humanity". Then he thought of them as welcoming and didn't notice -- "but how could we?" -- that the day was "darkening at the margins".
It is a powerful image in a vividly comic but densely- written and pondered book, and it brings us back to the mysterious quotation from Nietzche that O'Neill has chosen for epigraph: "The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species". Already, Netherland has been compared to The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. The comparison is apt, but add in something of the ironic intellect of John Banville and a good dash of the coarse energy of the early Saul Bellow and you will get a better idea of how rich this book is. It is not, I warn you, a quick read -- it took me more than a month -- but it's worth savouring slowly. As for the Booker, perhaps the bookies of Ireland should start laying off now.
Brian Lynch was recently writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Library in Monaco.