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Inland by Téa Obreht

Published by Random House on August 13, 2019

After The Tiger’s Wife, a novel that mixes reality with myth in a Balkan country, it might seem odd that Téa Obreht would write an American western. Yet westerns are all about myth and Obeht has given the genre a twist. The ghosts who haunt the main characters are in keeping with the dead who populate the stories told by characters in The Tiger’s Wife.

The living characters in Inland arrive at stark truths in the desolate lands through which they roam. One character comes “to understand that extraordinary people are eroded by their worries while the useless are carried ever forward by their delusions.” Another character believes that “God, in His infinite wisdom, made it so that to live, generally, is to wound another. And He made every man blind to his own weapons, and too short-living to do anything but guard jealously his own small, wasted way.”

Want is a theme explored through several characters, one of whom concludes that it is best to always be a little discontent, because “too much contentment is apt to make you think you can have more. And worse, make you wonder: when will it be taken away?” The two central characters, Nora and Lurie, are both struck by the “vast and immutable want everybody, dead or alive, carried with them all the time.” A related theme is the rootlessness of men who believe that if they keep moving, what they want will be found at the next destination, while rooted women stay behind to raise children and build a home.

The story is also founded on the timeless theme that those who hold power will do anything they can to retain it. They reveal secrets, they spread lies, they make and carry out threats. Speaking truth to power is nothing but a slogan when the powerful have the ability to destroy truth tellers.

All of these themes are given context in a story that moves around in time and place as it chronicles the tumultuous lives of two main characters. Nora moves from Iowa to the Arizona Territory to be with her husband, Emmett Lark, who has taken on unmanageable debt to acquire a newspaper in a small town. Nora lost a daughter and lives in constant fear that she will lose her sons. She carries guilt and keeps a secret about that death from all but one person, a man who is not her husband. By 1893, in the midst of a drought and a raging dispute between two newspapers, she fears she will lose Emmett, who left in search of water and has not returned, leaving her to be comforted by the sheriff for whom she has long felt a guilty affection.

Nora’s life is shaped by hardship but she keeps resentment at bay by finding purpose in hard work. In her mind, she talks with her dead daughter, who ages as if she were alive, giving Nora “a glimpse of how all of life would have unfolded had the girl survived.”

Living with Nora is a young woman named Josie, who claims to communicate with the dead. She is adored by Nora’s youngest son and might be the future wife of an older son, although Nora treats her with contempt. Josie and Nora’s youngest son are convinced not just that ghosts walk among them, but that a demonic beast is lurking in the woods. Nora is never quite certain whether Josie has a psychic gift or a wild imagination ­­­­­— the evidence could go either way.

The second central character is Lurie, whose story begins decades before Nora’s. Lurie was born in Herzegovina to a father who is always angered to be mistaken for a Turk. At the age of six, running for his life in his father’s company, Lurie travels to New York, where he is soon orphaned. His adventures growing up teach him to be a thief; one of his tutors is the ghost of a boy named Hobb Mattie. In concert with Hobb’s living brother during the mid-1850s, Lurie regularly appears on Wanted posters in the South, where rebellion against the law of the North is celebrated. His nemesis is Marshal John Berger. Fleeing from Berger, Lurie makes his way to the West with a caravan of camels, intended as pack animals for the infantry.

The conflict that drives the plot concerns a proposal to move the county seat from Amargo, where Emmett and Nora live, to a town that is lobbying to be connected to the railroad. The loser of that conflict is doomed to remain forever inland. For reasons Nora does not understand, Emmett refuses to take on the rival town, its newspaper, and its most powerful rancher. When Emmet fails to return home after going in search of water, the conflict takes on a new dimension and leads to a series of surprising revelations.

The plot is engrossing and the way the two stories tie together is completely unexpected. Inland might not be quite as astonishing as The Tiger’s Wife, but Obreht again gives her readers the gift of luminous prose and again conjures a plot that is unlike anything I have read before. At 33, she is a relatively young writer, but she has an old soul. Eight years passed between The Tiger’s Wife and Inland. Since quality should always trump quantity, I will gladly wait another eight years to read her next book.


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