INLAND by Téa Obreht. (Random House, 384 pp., $27)
Téa Obreht’s “Inland” follows “The Tiger’s Wife,” her mesmerizing 2011 debut in which the author wedded a contemporary story and the cruel realities of the Balkans to legend and the paranormal. Grounded in the ages and folklore, it was a magnificent accomplishment, winner of Britain’s Orange Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award. “Inland” is set in the 19th century American Southwest, and though it also possesses a permeable membrane between the living and dead, the rational and fantastic, it is less enriched by cultural history.
The novel proceeds along two alternating storylines. The first is that of a boy, later man, eventually called Lurie, who emigrates with his father from a Balkan country at the age of 6. Soon orphaned, Lurie is eventually sent West as a delinquent and finds fast friends in Hobb Mattie, an inveterate thief, and his brother, Donovan. Hobb dies, but hangs around — as the shades of the dead tend to around Lurie — prompting the boy to continue his unappeasable pilfering ways. Donovan, Lurie and a couple of Mattie relatives form a robber gang, running afoul of Marshall John Berger, a nemesis who pops up throughout the book.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lurie attaches himself to a contingent of the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps (an experiment in using the animals for moving heavy goods and military supplies in the mid-19th century). From there he is launched upon a series of further adventures throughout the Southwest. We learn all this and what follows from Lurie himself who is laying it out — with a good deal of initial obscurity — for a long-unidentified someone he calls “you” and, at times, “Burke.”
The novel’s other storyline belongs to Nora Lark, 37, a woman of Slovenian stock living on a settler’s claim, a “scald of earth” in drought-stricken Arizona in 1893. She is married to Emmett, a dreamer who, in addition to the failing farm, runs a small-town newspaper. The couple have three sons. Their daughter Evelyn died as an infant in circumstances brought on by fear and misjudgment, the details of which are revealed much later. Dead though she is, Evelyn is growing into a young woman in her mother’s head, speaking to her often with common sense advice.
When we meet Nora she is waiting for Emmett to return from wherever he went in the horse cart to fetch water. He is well overdue and the two older boys have gone off to find him, leaving Nora with Toby, the youngest son; Emmett’s aged, paralyzed mother; and Josie, a servant with a gift of communicating with the dead. Nora, a rationalist — except about Evelyn — will have none of that, nor will she countenance Josie’s and Toby’s claim that they have glimpsed a terrifying beast rampaging about the place.
There are other woes. The Larks’ neighbors have disappeared from their desiccated claims, leaving the houses they built and most of their belongings behind. The last hope, nearby Amargo, the county seat, will get a railhead is doomed. This is the work of a ruthless cattle king who is angling for the county seat to be moved to a town near his holdings and, with it, the future railhead. It will destroy Amargo. While her husband is absent, Nora causes a letter to be published arguing for Amargo’s priority, describing what she frames as its vital history which comes down to little more than two decades. Nora’s letter backfires badly.
The novel has less of a plot than a set of questions raised and answered: Where are Emmett and the two elder sons? What’s the story on the putative beast? What were the circumstances of Evelyn’s death? Who is the mysterious “Burke?” Will Marshall Berger get his man? These puzzles materialize rather murkily in the first half and are gradually addressed in the second. If this is less than satisfactory, the conclusion is splendid, bringing the two storylines together with real panache.
It is the plight of an author’s second novel to be compared to the first and there is some fine writing here — though I doubt anyone in the 19th century would use “task,” “gift” or “source” as a verb. Still, “Inland” lacks the intricate tapestry of its predecessor. It is hard to get a handle on its characters and this American Southwest has the feeling of a stage set rather than the lived, dreamed, time-steeped reality and surreality of the world of “The Tiger’s Wife.”