Tea Obreht’s “Inland”

September 28th, 2019  |  Published in September 2019

Tea Obreht’s second novel, “Inland” , may be even more phenomenal than her superb debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife”.  Both have appeared within 18 months or so, which, in and of itself, is amazing enough, both are long, sprawling, adventurous novels.  “Inland” is one of this year’s best novels, as we head into the final stretch of fiction for 2018. Born in Yugoslavia, Obreht’s sense of the American West during the years when most states were still territories is exceptional, often quirky, riveting.

Two parallel narratives structure the novel (the reader will wonder if and when the two strains may come together and will be quite surprised when they do). The domestic half of the novel, if you will, circles around the life of a pioneer woman, Nora, and her idealistic husband, who runs a small town newspaper in what I take to be Texas, in a town bigger than the tent cities out of which most Western cities evolved, big enough for real houses and buildings , a town which economically survives around the cattle empire of a man whose economic interests basically rule the town, its politicians; his money buys whatever he needs, including the power both in view and behind the scenes (Obreht’s understanding that money, power and greed already ruled America and its territories is brilliantly rendered). A train is about to be build either in this small town or in a nearby one; Nora’s husband’s newspaper has refused to take a stand, though Nora tries to do so in that paper herself , which will cause vast repercussions late in the novel.  The reader sees most everything from Nora’s points of view; she is isolated, frustrated, often angry; her husband’s away much of the time, while she’s at home with two teenaged sons, one niece who’s come to her house as her own family died tragically (one always took family in, even if they became “the help”), one young son who may well be partly romantically dreamy, and one old grandmother in a wheelchair. Finding water is a weekly trek and chronic problem.  And Nora is terrified of Native Americans who live all around where her family’s homesteaded. Her occasional interactions with an older Native American woman , who drops by from time to time, terrify her–those prejudices about native peoples abound in Nora’s world.

Nora’s husband and two sons vanish altogether, and the ensuing mystery of their whereabouts, which will involve the local sheriff, who appears to be in love with Nora (and vice versa), and other characters in and around the town, are fascinating, psychologically astute, and often very moving.  Her young son and her niece, who believes she speaks to/with the dead, are also convinced that some otherworldly “beast” is stalking their land.

Running parallel to Nora’s narrative is that of an outlaw, who’s all over the Western territories, trying to make a buck and find occasional safe havens. His journeys through the West are so astonishingly described, giving the reader a sense of the vastness of the West before it was really settled; he becomes a part of an Army group of men riding imported camels from the Middle East , as camels need little water and are fierce desert animals (they are also notoriously nasty, moody, quick to temper). Mattie, the outlaw, befriends other outlaws and groups of Turks who’ve been “imported” with the camels: this part of The West’s history is real, if eccentric and little known. Horses and mules are terrified of camels, so in the occasional skirmishes between and amongst groups of wandering men, either seeking their fortunes or part of The American army, the men with the camels are likely to win because of their camels. The writing in this second, parallel narrative, is often exquisite, and Obreht has no problem moving into the territory of male bonding amongst these roaming men, as well as with their bonding with their camels.  The author also describes landscape, weather, mood, water, with amazing descriptive abilities; the reader will become quickly riveted by both narratives, which she structures with one chapter about Nora, the next about Mattie, throughout the novel.

Obreht’s characters are isolated, often strong, quirky, courageous, independent, lonely, frightened, profoundly optimistic in ways, always prepared to move on and start again, depending upon circumstances, luck, changes in climate/weather, where railroads are or aren’t built, where water sources exist. (Some of her characters in the US Army are real historical figures, which I didn’t know until I read her acknowledgements). There’s no shoot-’em-ups, no heroes per se, no great romances–this novel is not inspired by movies or television or those John Wayne-esque myths of the West. The grit, the dirt, the fear, the worries of these new Americans or newly moved Americans, must bring thoughts about new immigrants on our Southern border to mind, even if such isn’t Obreht’s intentions.

“Inland” is a true nineteenth century novel which jumped into the 21st century; it’s a great read, its language is magnificent, its plots fascinating. It may well be a masterpiece of its genre.

–Daniel Brown

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