Inland by Téa Obreht: A review

I read Téa Obreht's first novel, The Tiger's Wife, in 2011 and found it wonderfully imaginative with beautiful writing. It was set in the homeland of the author's ancestors, the former Yugoslavia, and told the story of a young doctor, a pediatrician, who had been set on the course of her life's work by her beloved grandfather. He told her stories that were based on the folk tales of the area and that incorporated the supernatural and the superstitious. They were a major influence on her life.

Now, finally, Obreht has produced a new book that is every bit as beautifully written and imaginative as her first one and it, too, contains elements of folk tales that border on the supernatural, as well as the actual historical events of the area about which she is writing. But she's no longer in Eastern Europe. Her historical fiction now takes us to the American Southwest, mainly Arizona Territory in 1893. And again she has given us some truly unforgettable characters.

Lurie is a Middle Eastern immigrant to America, having been brought here as a child by his father. The two end up in Missouri in 1856. After a  brief hard life of trying to make a living for the two, the father dies, leaving his young child. Lurie lives for a short while with the landlady where they had been living but then she sells him to the coachman who collects dead bodies and he assists him with his work for a time. Eventually, he meets brothers, Donovan and Hobb Mattie, and they embark on a life as outlaws together. The two become Lurie's family, his "brothers", and even Hobb's death cannot separate them. Lurie continues to see Hobb, as well as others among the dead throughout his life.

The three young men make their way to the Texas Coast where they link up with an expedition that used camels as pack animals. It was headed by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, an actual historical character. Lurie felt an instinctive familiarity with the animals because of his Ottoman roots. He became a cameleer and traveled around the West for years in the company of a camel that he named Burke.

Meanwhile, in Arizona Territory, the Lark family had settled and was growing. Nora Lark is the mother of the family and it is her narrative that is told. Her husband is a newspaperman who, when we meet them, in 1893, has gone to buy water to bring to their farm. They are in a drought and water is scarce. He is overdue and the family is beginning to suffer, their available water almost gone. Soon, her two older sons also leave after a disagreement. They leave no word as to where they have gone. Nora is left behind with her youngest son, Toby, and her husband's seventeen-year-old cousin who lives with them and helps around the house. Oh, and also the shade of her daughter, Evelyn, who died at age five months many years ago but has continued to live and grow in Nora's imagination until she is now in her late teens. The cousin also communicates with the dead, or as she calls them the "other living". 

The narratives of Lurie and Nora transport us through this harsh, arid landscape and introduce us to the people of the area, the Navajo and Apache as well as the Mexicans who have lived there for centuries and ended up on the wrong side of the river when the border was established, and the narratives eventually converge in Arizona Territory in 1893. They also introduce us to the racism that always seems to simmer just under the surface of this country, occasionally boiling over. The consequences of that racism are often tragic, as they were for Nora.

This is a book that explores big ideas including the immigrant experience, the tragedy of racism, and the inevitable clash between a traditional way of life and "progress". As I was finishing up reading the book, I came across an interview that The Guardian had with the author and I was struck by a quote from that interview. Obreht said:
I thought I was writing a book set in the west in the 1890s and I didn't realize how much of it was going to align with this particular cycle that we've fallen into now. What it showed me was that cultural discourse in this country, as in many others, operates in cyclical ways. We go forward a little bit and then we fall back. We make some progress but also revert in these horrific ways to things we've been fighting against for hundreds of years. Human cruelty, human frailty, vanity, paranoia - their modalities change and maybe their tone changes a little bit from century to century, but, actually they stay the same. They're reptilian.
At least Inland and its author leave us with the hope that we may conquer the reptilian and make progress again.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

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