Thursday, January 01, 2015

Book: Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Published in 2008 and long-listed for the Man Booker prize that year, this novel by Joseph O’ Neill did create a buzz at that time. The Booker that year was won by the Indian author Aravinda Adiga for his debut novel The White Tiger. I read The White Tiger soon after that novel came out but somehow could get hold of the Netherland only now after six years.

Netherland ticks many of the traits that I like in novels. I like a multi-layered plot compared to a simple and direct one. In this novel the plot operates at different layers. At one level it is about the immigrant experience of belonging and non belonging. At another level it is about a marriage that is going through a crisis. There is also the chronicling of the subtle psychological upheavals brought up by the developments of the day, including and not limited to the 9/11 event. The plot is sufficiently intricate to provide a great platform to the writing skills of the author. Skills that are evidently remarkable. The consistently engaging and admirably fluent writing is one of the standout features of the novel.

Indeed one of the most remarkable things about reading fiction is the great facility it provides to inhabit the varied geographies and societies of the world, and to experience through the writer’s eyes all that those places offer. Written in a stream of consciousness style, the novel takes you to New York, London, Trinidad and to the Netherlands by turns. Joseph O’ Neill amazes with the smooth, vivid and evocative descriptions. Those familiar with New York must find the sections related to that place most familiar. Even for others it is not difficult to imagine the landscapes that the author so meticulously constructs with his descriptions.

There are also passages on the sport of cricket. The references undoubtedly appeal to any cricket aficionado. Well, the aspects about cricket in the novel in no way take anything away from the graceful, balanced, and reflective overall narrative. It is impossible not to be moved throughout by the lyrical and poised prose of the narrative.

There is also a rich bounty available to the word hunter. The prose abounds with words that entail you to look up the dictionary. There are some interesting references to etymologies of words too. For instance, it was useful to learn that the word ‘aftermath’ is derived from after+math(mown)- “grass which grows in meadows that have been mown”. And that the word ‘fathom’ is derived from a word that originally meant ‘the outstretched arms’. Some of the other words in the novel that impressed me are (click to find details about the word): syllogism, promethean, pluvial, morganatic, peroration, lepidopterist.

There are some observations the author makes that are incisive and unsettling.  These are lines that made me catch my breath and read again. Sample these-

“Perhaps the relevant truth…is that we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you’re paying attention you’ll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble.” - pg 61

“And after Mama’s cremation I could not rid myself of the notion that she had been placed in the furnace of memory even when alive and, by extension, that one’s dealings with other, ostensibly vital, at a certain point become dealings with the dead.” - pg 86

“We had plenty to feel smug about, if so inclined. Smugness, however, requires a certain reflectiveness, which requires perspective, which requires distance” - pg 89

“…trying to shrug off a sharp new sadness…the sadness produced when the mirroring world no longer offers a surface in which one may recognise one’s true likeness.” - pg 111

Also, there are passages that are sure to resonate with any true cricket lover-

“…it’s my belief that the communal, contractual phenomenon of New York cricket is underwritten, there where the print is finest, by the same agglomeration of unspeakable individual longings that underwrites cricket played anywhere - longings concerned with horizons and potentials sighted or hallucinated and in any event lost long ago, tantalisms that touch on the undoing of losses too private and reprehensible to be acknowledged to oneself, let alone to others. I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice.” - pg 116

“…conditions may be different from day to day and from ground to ground. Sydney Cricket Ground favours spin, Hedingly, in Leeds, seam bowling. This differentness is not only a question of differing grass batting surfaces. There is the additional question of the varying atmospheric conditions - humidity and cloud cover, in particular - that obtain from time to time and from place to place and can dramatically affect what happens to a cricket ball as it travels from bowler to batsman.” - pg 143

All this may seem like a lot to say about a book that came six years ago. Somehow, the novel has left a strong impression and I wanted to share that with others.

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