Inland by Téa Obreht
A curiously timely novel set around an Arizona homestead in the late 1890s, Téa Obreht’s excellent Inland finds a vein of magical realism in the reliably fruitful ores of Western Literature. When Nora’s husband Emmett goes missing on a trip to refresh their water supply, and with her two boys off God knows where, Nora is forced to take matters into her own hands while caring for the young and elderly members of her family. Obreht admirably embeds herself in the often-cliché stylings of the wild west but looks beyond its usual tropes to find contemporary resonance amidst themes of family, history and place in America.
The magical realism of Obreht’s fine 2011 debut The Tiger’s Wife shines through in Inland by way of ghosts: Nora, years ago, lost a child but can still sense her daughter’s voice. Now, Nora is “thirty-seven years old and half-habited by the apparition of a child she had known for only five months, whose remaining life had nevertheless somehow unfolded in her imagination so that every beam, every corner of this house breathed with the immutable spirit of her daughter.” Meanwhile, Josie, Emmett’s young cousin, claims to be able to communicate with the dead, who she calls “the other living.” She once held seances for the bereaved, but now makes do helping Nora and Emmett tend house. On the morning that Inland opens, Nora’s young son Toby and Josie are fretting over a demon-like beast they claim is lurking on their land. Perhaps it’s something only the children can see.
A second thread runs through Inland, following the life of a wanted Turkish man and his years with the US Camel Corps (a delightfully strange bit of true US history). Lurie Mattie spends much of Inland regaling his adventures to his loyal camel, Burke, but is also carried by a ghostly presence, similar to the spiritual peculiarities of Nora’s home. In one story from his childhood, Lurie recalls “a thin tickle spread around me, and I knew he’d put his ghost arm about my shoulders. That was the first I ever got this strange feeling at the edges of myself — this want.”
A want, creeping in from the edges and propelling one character forward, while another character is practically cluttered with the essence of her dearly departed. It’s a beautiful, albeit complicated, sentiment to connect between these two characters: it seems Obreht is looking into the ether of memory for a place to moor one’s stories. In the trying times of the frontier west, it’s all a person could really hope for.
While a compelling literary western, the novel has a few structural shortcomings that will remind readers that Inland, an impressive and often thrilling work, is only Obreht’s second novel. While Lurie’s saga spans his entire life, Nora’s story unfolds in a single day and is repeatedly filled out with scenes from the past. This effectively plays out much of the nuances in Nora’s family history, but does so at the expense of Inland’s initially snappy pacing. Obreht also abruptly unveils some critical plot points in a way that feels clunky in comparison to her otherwise melodic storytelling: the sheriff, for example, proves to be a key character despite his entrance halfway through the novel. It does feel like Obreht is writing in from the edges of her story, which thematically gels with her characters’ search for home and hope, but ultimately these elements prevent Inland from being the immersive, transportive work it could have been.
Towards the end of Inland, one character makes a grand speech about the homesteading dream which tries reveals an inherent selfishness at its core. It’s a disarming moment, and wickedly delivered:
The plains were fated to it the moment the first man hauled himself up a good hillock, took one look at the countryside unrolling in every direction, sucked in deep, and told himself that all was designated for his own, solitary soul. Told himself: the sublime lives here, and I am the only one who sees it.
In a novel full of awe and sublimity, with two disparate threads carried by complementary themes of hope and a dream of rooting somewhere in this grand country, perhaps there’s a quietly forceful message of inclusivity buried deep in Inland: that however independent we may feel, we share our dreams and fears and may be better off together, with stories overlapping.