Thursday, September 26, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Inland by Tea Obreht

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Tea Obreht is a brilliant writer, as proved by her bestselling The Tiger’s Wife (which I have to admit I liked but did not love.)

Her newest book, Inland, is more up my alley and I did love it. Set in Arizona Territory in 1893, the book follows the fates of two very different people: Lurie, an orphaned ex-outlaw turned camel driver, and Nora, a frontier farmer trying to hold the family together while her husband searches for water during a drought. It’s clear the two disparate stories will eventually intersect, and part of the beauty of the story is piecing together all the individual parts until it becomes a narrative whole.

Lurie is a lonely figure, wandering the west, trying to outrun his past. He settles into whatever occupation he can find, finally finding peace with a group of cameleers who take him in. When his past catches up with him, he sets off again, this time taking along his camel, who has become his most faithful companion. Lurie’s other constant companions are ghosts. (And there are many of them haunting the barren West.) He can feel their wants and if he gets too close to them, he absorbs the yearning – not a healthy gift to have.

Nora is raising three boys on a hardscrabble farm; two are grown and one is still quite young. She’s devoted to them, yet detached. She’s walled herself off, having lost her firstborn, a daughter, many years before. The stated cause of death was sun-poisoning (sun-drowning) but, of course, the story behind that is complicated. Nora talks to her daughter’s ghost, who has not remained a baby but rather grown up as though a normal child, but one with a vaster perspective than that of a living child.

All the disasters that can beset a struggling frontier farming community have hit this one. The precipitating event is a severe drought that leaves Nora and her family desperate for water. Her husband, Emmett, who runs the local newspaper, has set off to find the delayed water delivery man. Her two eldest sons disappear, ostensibly gone looking for him. Alone with her youngest boy, her mother-in-law (incapacitated by a stroke), and her husband’s cousin, a somewhat batty young woman who undermines Nora’s practicality with an insistence that she can communicate with the dead. (Lots of that going on.)

It’s a gorgeous story, solemn without being depressing. Nora’s resilience in the face of almost unrelenting hardship manages to provide hope to a narrative that would otherwise be painfully bleak. The mix of dreamy otherworldliness with the stark realities of frontier life make for a complex, absorbing novel.