Magic realism served Obreht well in her fable about Yugoslavia’s baroque divisions, and it’s no less effective in shaping this alternative foundation myth about the American west... Obreht’s narrative skill here is part of the magic of Inland, which succeeds spectacularly at reinventing a well-worn genre and its tropes. There are no stereotypes in this western, only ferociously adroit writing that honours the true strangeness of reality in its search for the meaning of home.
I confused myself by disliking this book on first read and then, when going back a second time to dig for something to say, being absolutely blown away... My reason for disliking it the first time around is: I got lost. Obreht uses sentences that lead us, in a single clause, back decades, never to return... Once you get with the rhythm of Inland, though, it really packs a punch. There are lots of details, but – and this takes a while to grasp – none of them is redundant. In fact, they contain depth that seems bottomless. Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, won the Orange Prize for its mythic depiction of the Balkan wars. It’s been eight years coming but this literary western will likely invite similar adulation... Inland is not an easy read. But it is moving and learned, and it reminds us how the history of America has always been about trying to create a home in a hostile place: about wrestling with the cruelties and realities of a land that existed centuries before, and will continue to exist centuries after, these passers-through are gone.
If Inland has a flaw it is that the two narrative strands do not tie together as satisfyingly as one would hope. Separate until the 11th hour, their collision falls a little flat, considering the odyssey we have been on. A book with so much plot ought to end with more of it.
Yet there is so much to admire and enjoy here: the interplay of magic and reason, the threats of progress, the tribalism of a nation forming. Above all, the difficulty of simply living alongside one another, evoked in Obreht’s masterful language, variously lyrical, hilarious and profound: ‘Life’s happiness,’ she writes,‘is always a famine.’
But while Inland may feel complex and overladen (we get everything here from 19th-century geology to accounts of the Southern free press), its ambition is part of the point. Despite the piled up details and the shuttling time frames the book, not unlike that camel on the Texas dockside, keeps moving forwards – freighted, intense, but “rolling steady, like a dream making itself up” as it goes.
The historical detail is immaculate, the landscape exquisitely drawn; the prose is hard, muscular, more convincingly Cormac McCarthy than McCarthy himself. If the western is the tale that America tells about itself, then this is an attempt to write a new chapter in that story. This isn’t just a western, though... Inland also feels of a piece with another recent novel, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, a brilliantly eerie gothic tale in which the horrors of history are condensed into a single ghostly figure. Obreht’s novel similarly explores the brutality and darkness that lurk beneath the veneer of the American dream.
...there’s little well-directed commentary about life, nature, art, ideas or anything much at all in “Inland.” Set in an Old West that feels like a film set, the novel is packed with whimsical “characters” and earnest séances and omens and dowsers and people who talk to the dead. This novel underscores the word “purple” in the patriotic song lyric about “purple mountain majesties.”... I realize I am being terribly hard on Obreht’s novel, but I felt lashed to its mast very early on and That Sinking Feeling never entirely went away.
The many readers who will enjoy “Inland” and put it on best-seller lists can send an old curse in my direction. You know the one: May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits.
At a time when old-fashioned storytelling seems to be in decline, Téa Obreht is a class apart...Yet this is just the bare bones of a bustling, bravura adventure that’s part Western, part Cormac McCarthy and part Obreht’s unique blend of spiritual realism in which, as her protagonists wrestle with their respective destinies, the voices of the dead are just as loud as those of the living. This is not a novel to gulp down, but to savour, as Obreht fleshes out every possible detail in language that tastes both of the soil and of the skies.
Obreht distils an impressive volume of research to transport us to 19th-century America, and some of the novel’s wackiest details are based on reality. One storyline is addressed to a camel called Burke. The Turkish narrator, Lurie, is first a graverobber, then a member of a violent gang. On the run from the law, he falls in with the US Camel Corps, which was (really!) an attempt to introduce camels to the southwestern United States as military pack animals
Yet there are sparkling descriptions here — the frontiersman Kit Carson, we’re told, had “enough grit to turn your teeth to powder”; the sheriff’s wife has “a jaw so robust you’d be forgiven for thinking she ate rawhide four squares a day”. Obreht is alive to the sharp, enduring pain of grief and how it alters even the most mundane aspects of life — and she convincingly conjures the jagged anxiety of clinging on to life and livelihood in the face of terrible odds.
In her new book Obreht has swapped the tumultuous history of the former Yugoslavia for that of the American frontier. What she retains, in addition to infectious storytelling and a split, double narrative, is the strong sense of superstition which pervades the earlier fiction; a form of magic realism is at work here, which does not detract from the harshly explicit truths transmitted about the nature — and the price — of survival. The dead of the novel are, to quote one character, the “other living”, and though their time on Earth may have been savage and short, for those who can see them, lingering in the perpetual twilight of afterlife, they form a population of spirits, whose “wants” seep insistently into the consciousness of those still breathing.
It has been seven years since Obreht's extraordinary debut, The Tiger's Wife, won the Orange Prize. This, her second novel, reminded me what a blazing talent she is. Two storylines unfold. One is set over a single day in Arizona Territory, 1893, where frontierswoman Nora waits for the return of her husband, and her elder sons who have vanished after an argument. The other covers decades in the life of former outlaw Lurie Mattie. An extraordinary reimagining of the American West, which is as much about the land itself as it is about the people who eke a living from it.