Two novels is a small sample size, but Téa Obreht’s M.O. is clear: She’s determined to unsettle our most familiar, cliché-soaked genres.
Her 2011 debut, “The Tiger’s Wife,” merged war stories and ethnic folk tales, making both feel fresh and unfamiliar. If she overreached, it was in the name of exploding some old tropes. With her follow-up, the hefty and engrossing “Inland,” she means to do the same thing for the western.
The dusty desert setting — we’re in the Southwest in the second half of the 19th century — is as familiar as Louis L’Amour. But the ghosts and camels meandering through the narrative are another matter.
The novel focuses on two characters: Lurie, a former member of a gang of bandits, and Nora, the wife of a newspaper owner whose Arizona home, Amargo, risks becoming a ghost town thanks to a drought and profiteers. “You could not speak of life in Amargo without mentioning solitude. Or snakes,” Obreht writes. “And then there was the heat, of course.”
So far, so home on the range. But giving so much of the novel’s stage to Nora makes this a less familiar woman’s western, one that’s more about resilience, wit and family than frontier justice.
Meanwhile, in Texas, Lurie winds up joining the U.S. Camel Corps, in which the Army used camels as pack animals for long hauls across the Southwest. Obreht stresses their strangeness: “What in hell were these jangling monstrosities; these big, toothy, snooded goats?” Lurie observes.
It takes a few decades and a thousand miles for Lurie and Nora’s stories to connect. But they’re united in their outsider status, as well as their ability to communicate with ghosts — or their belief that they do. Lurie feels subject to the “want” of a child who died during his outlaw days, while Nora speaks with a daughter who died of heatstroke on her watch.
Obreht doesn’t want us to see this as delusional. Rather, it’s the natural coping mechanism for an unforgiving landscape. The novel’s title refers to its sun-scorched setting, but also the interior monologues that Obreht’s heroes maintain to survive.
In that sense, “Inland” can feel like Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” turned inside out: contemplative rather than rollicking, ghostly rather than blood-soaked. Obreht resists convention so strenuously that the novel sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard — that studied interiority can muffle its sense of adventure.
But in its closing chapters Obreht elegantly merges Nora and Lurie’s fates, satisfying Obreht’s urge to play this old tune in a different key. As Lurie tells his beloved camel, and us: “Don’t we all got a thing makes us get that look in our eyes? All of us who ever said, let’s go, let’s go on, who starved for the sight of something new?”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.
By: Tea Obreht.
Publisher: Random House, 374 pages, $27.