Téa Obreht’s second novel, Inland, an epic tale of love and loss that offers an alternative view of the foundations of the American West, is built around a little-known chapter in history. Camels, purchased in the Middle East and Mediterranean and tied down in boats to cross the ocean, were used in place of mules or horses to pack materials to army forts in San Antonio and other locations across the expanding U.S. territories. In 1857, under the direction of Mexican-American War veteran General Edward Beale, a group of camels, soldiers, and two camel drivers embarked on a War Department–sanctioned trek across deserts, plains, and rivers.
One of Inland ’s plotlines involves Lurie, a young orphan befriended by the drivers—the drawn-from-life George and Jolly—and attached to one of the camels. Lurie carries in his canteen the water of six rivers: the Guadalupe, the Pecos, the Rio Grande, the Canadian, the Brazos, and the Colorado. Able to see the dead “drifting at the edge of the crowd, thumbs in their mouths, their eyes faraway,” he travels with Beale across ravaged villages; later, he goes off alone with the camel, to which he is devoted. “You have carried water,” he reflects, “to those furthest from it. How strange that your lack of want for it should make you so perfectly suited to bring it to others? You have carried barrels full of life for prospectors and miners, for small townships whose wells had gone alkaline, for lost wagon trains and thirsty desperadoes.”
Lurie’s adventures overlap, sometimes unexpectedly, with those of 37-year-old Nora when he arrives in Amargo, a once-green valley in the Arizona Territory now defiled by drought and corrupt politicians ready to kick anyone under the wagon to further their interests.
We meet Nora a few days after Emmett—the impulsive, fortune-seeking husband with whom she once shared “a torrential hope that they were cut from a cloth that could turn life at the edge of the world into a grand adventure”—has gone missing. Mother to three rebellious sons, she has “furtive confabs” with her daughter, Evelyn, who died of heatstroke when “she was only just beginning to laugh.” Now the water is gone; the housemaid claims to see beasts in the outbuildings; and the architects of western “prosperity” threaten to move the county seat to Ash River, condemning Amargo to the status of true ghost town. Even the ghosts are “hardened by death and life,” and a grieving mother is “half-habited by the apparition of a child she had known for only five months, whose remaining life had nevertheless somehow unfolded in her imagination so that every beam, every mirror, every corner of this house breathed with the immutable spirit of her daughter.”
Although Nora’s story unfolds over a single day, the novel ranges across time and memory, providing a deep sense of history, known and unknown. Obreht’s extraordinary ability to render both landscape (“Beyond lay the dark: flat and unrelenting, unpeopled, absolute”) and character (“the older she grew the more she came to recognize falsehood as the preservative that allowed the world to maintain its shape”) has enabled her to construct a work of fiction that is enchanting, surprising, and complicated—as full of woe as it is wonder, and deeply attuned to the connection between the two.
Inland makes clear the unreliability of the tales we tell ourselves—involving family, home, country, love—and reinforces the singular truth that we can always be “turned out suddenly into that darkness…entirely alone.” Such narratives create lenses through which we can’t see clearly: memory isn’t recognized as an enemy until too late; what you think is a beast is a loyal, water-bearing friend; you run from the wrong people and make way for those who take everything from you. These realities are as relevant today as they were during the period Obreht evokes.
As Lurie continues on his lonely journey, he begins to wish that he “could pour our memories into the water we carried, so that anyone drinking from our canteen might see how it had been.” But seeing clearly also has its consequences. Nora finally quenches her own thirst, but not without paying the price of seeing a future she will never come to know, as well as a past she can never forget.
Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, was a New York Times bestseller, a winner of the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and a finalist for a National Book Award. Only 33, she delivers a sweeping canvas of a novel that explodes the clichéd origin stories of the American West.
Leveraging deep truths about the power of heartbreak—in particular, a mother’s grief over a lost child and a man’s grief over his inability to protect his “funny, noble friend”—Inland offers a brutal vision that extends beyond romanticized depictions of lonely cowboys and rogue outlaws laying claim to lands that never belonged to them. The novel argues that if we can understand how grief can act as both a trap and a way of finding freedom, we will better recognize how countries are “won,” as well as what is lost in their making.
With its mix of history, magic, and myth, Inland makes clear that the losses caused by so-called settlement far outweigh the gains. “That was the funny thing about death,” Nora muses. “The wake of its altered mundanities could keep surprising you long after it had swept through.” A camel without a cameleer; a mother without her child; a territory without a conscience, teeming with the living, heaving with the forgotten dead.
• By Téa Obreht
• Random House, 384 pages, $27