Liza's Reviews > Netherland

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
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's review
May 09, 2009

really liked it
Read in June, 2009

At the end of 2008 a number of book blogs published their best-of lists, and whenever I had a spare minute I made a point of hunting down the Amazon Kindle sample chapters. Netherland came up repeatedly, and when it made the news recently (the president is apparently reading it) I started the sample. By now I was a little tired of back-to-back stories set in 19th century London anyway. (I was surprised to discover it’s possible for me to get sick of them, even if they do have zombies.)

Free sample chapters are, to my mind, the greatest thing about the Kindle, way cooler than e-ink or free wireless. Sampling has changed the way I choose books in the way that digital purchasing changed the way I consume music. I reject more books than I buy after checking out the samples, but I churn through books much more quickly. Amazon doesn’t care which books I buy, as long as I buy many, so this is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Anyway, Netherland was one I bought immediately after finishing the sample. This first-person narrative is told from the point of view of a European expat in contemporary New York. I’m not sure I’ve read much in the way of non-American perspectives on living in the US that weren’t explicitly political or satirical. I’m not a New Yorker either but I’m in the city quite often (I wrote this on the train home from there, in fact), so New York is perpetually
both familiar and alien.

I don’t do plot in my writeups, generally, and I won’t start here. The reason to read this book is for its lyricism anyway.

The week before, Jake and I had played in his grandparents’ garden. I raked leaves into piles and he helped me bag the leaves. The leaves were dry and marvelously light. I added armloads to the red and brown and gold crushed in the plastic sack; Jake picked up a single leaf and made a cautious, thrilled deposit. At one point he put on his superhero frown and charged a hillock of leaves. Wading into its harmless fire, he courageously sprawled. “‘Ook, ‘ook!” he screamed as he rolled in the leaves. I looked, and looked, and looked. Fronds of his yellow hair curled out from the hood’s fringe onto his cheeks. He wore his purple quilted jacket, and his thermal khakis with an inch of tartan turnup, and his blue ankle boots with the zip, and the blue sweater with the white boat, and — I knew this because I had dressed him — his train-infested underpants, and the red T-shirt he liked to imagine was a Spider-Man shirt, and Old Navy green socks with rubbery lettering on the soles. We gardened together. I demonstrated how to use a shovel. When I dug up the topsoil, I was taken aback: countless squirming creatures ate and moved and multiplied underfoot. The very ground we stood on was revealed as a kind of ocean, crowded and immeasurable and full of light.

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