Téa Obreht’s second novel is an expansive and ambitious subversion of Western tropes, set in fin de siècle America. We have the outlaw, the detached hero, the fainting woman. Yet our outlaw is a camel-rider, our desperado a mother defending her homestead. Everything save the relentlessly harsh Arizona desert — a ‘godforsaken place’ of ‘baking summer hillsides’ — is unreliable: memory, relationships, even the finality of death.
Both our narrators are preoccupied with the dead. Lurie, ‘a small, hirsute Levantine’ and former grave-robber wanted for murder, is haunted by the ‘wants’ of dead orphans. Alive, they set him on the road to banditry, but once deceased they urge him to seek out comradeship. We meet him first as a six-year-old, already on the run, a boy who barely knew his immigrant father (‘he was thin, I think’) but longs to remember the foreign tongue he spoke. Lurie is searching for a home. And so eventually he sets off… on a camel. Obreht’s meticulously researched premise is the bizarre experiment by the 1860s US army to use camels as packhorses. Burke the camel, whom Lurie treats with enormous warmth, is ‘frozly and irate’… a ‘great, opinionated, wilful, contemptuous thing’.
Meanwhile, Nora, a fearless frontiers-woman, awaits the return of her news-paperman husband Emmett, away fetching water, and her two elder sons, whereabouts unknown. Toby, her youngest, rants about a mystical beast that he insists stalks their land. A servant girl, Josie, holds seances that the hard-headed Nora abhors, even as she chats secretly with her long-dead daughter Evelyn. Nora’s problem is the opposite of Lurie’s: she has a home, but the sands beneath it are shifting. Lurking amid the mesquites and the dust-storms are the complex threats of lawless Arizona: local politics, gold fever, railroad prospects. An angry Apache scandal (there are those dime novel tropes again) casts Nora in an unflattering yet realistic light.
If Inland has a flaw it is that the two narrative strands do not tie together as satisfyingly as one would hope. Separate until the 11th hour, their collision falls a little flat, considering the odyssey we have been on. A book with so much plot ought to end with more of it.
Yet there is so much to admire and enjoy here: the interplay of magic and reason, the threats of progress, the tribalism of a nation forming. Above all, the difficulty of simply living alongside one another, evoked in Obreht’s masterful language, variously lyrical, hilarious and profound: ‘Life’s happiness,’ she writes,‘is always a famine.’