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.