Book review: Inland by Téa Obreht

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

In our rush to make some sort of liveable accommodation with the vagaries and contradictions of life, we often fall into the trap of lionising it without paying sufficiently heed to its drawbacks, losses and complications.

It’s understandable – while the business of living might feel like a short and finite endeavour, there’s still a great deal of it to be had and who wants to admit to the fact that much of it is flawed or broken or downright impossible?

One person who is not able to admit to life’s flaws and problems but to tackle them head on and in the most lyrically expressive of ways is gifted writer Téa Obreht whose debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was a literary sensation back in 2011.

It is easy to see why.

Not only was her writing superlatively beautiful, a poet’s dream of exquisitely well-drawn phrases and gloriously lovely bon mots, but it contained real insight into the messy busy of living, insights set amongst the turmoil of war and resulting social upheaval in old Yugoslavia.

What made it truly remarkable was Obreht’s celebration of the fact that could find its way even amidst horror and hellish misfortune, a redemptive tale of sorts that was brutally honest but still cautiously hopeful.

“At the top of the drive, Nora found herself turning to look right down the empty road. An old habit, frustratingly revived since the Floreses’ flight had made the Lark place, once more, the northernmost habitation for miles. The last known point before the page went blank. Then she spurred old Bill left and rode toward town along the canyon road. It was just coming to fall, and the valley was making a brilliant spectacle of its own death. Yellow detonations stood like signal fires above the subducted creeks where the cottonwoods, at least, had managed to find water.” (P. 37)

Her new novel, Inland, set in the American West of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, echoes a similar brute honesty about life as it tells the parallel and finally interweaving stories of Lurie, a cameleer with a shady past and ghostly reminder of his past misbegotten deeds, and Nora, a tough, no-nonsense women in front Arizona doing her best to raise three sons, look after their cousin who has come to live with them and navigate her way around her husband’s dreams of a brighter future which rarely yield to a pleasing, liveable present.

They may appear as wholly unconnected people with little to nothing in common, and for much of Inland, they do not meet, their lives told in alternating chapters, or groups of chapters, throughout this wholly remarkable and prose-rich novel.

Thought the timelines differ for each – Lurie’s story is told over a period of months and years as he joins a military camel expedition to survey California (this much is historically true; in 1855, Congress voted to import three dozen camels and middle-eastern cameleers) while Nora’s tale is set over one life-changing day in 1893 – each story has the same immutable truths.

Which are that we are haunted by the deeds and misdeeds of our past, of our growing up and our families, of decisions made and decisions foregone, and that these inform who we are now even as they race headfirst and meld into current blighted and gifted decision-making.

In so doing, they speak to the fact that life is rarely what we imagine it to be, and that it contains a good deal more darkness and more fantasticalness than we give it credit for.

Téa Obreht (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Lurie is a man desperately familiar with both aspects.

The recipient of a great deal of familial misfortune which causes him to be, among other things, a grave ribber and wanted outlaw, he is literally haunted by the ghosts of those he has known who, if they touch him, infect him in a sense with their unmet needs and wants in life.

It is heavy burden to bear that Lurie faces with either equanimity or a burdensome tiredness, and yet it adds a magically quality to his life, informing in ways he might otherwise lack.

He eventually ends up working on this cameleer expedition to California and while it leads to rich friendships and experiences beyond measure, the weight of his past and the darkness of living is never far from him, leading to a fate that might seem poetic in some ways though it is not one he would have chosen had he had any real say in the matter.

Nora is much the same, though she is living a wholly different kind of life.

On the day in question, her homestead has run of water, her husband is overdue from a trip to get some more – he might be dead, he might not; Nora is not one to leap to dread conclusions – her two eldest sons are missing, her youngest is imagining he is seeing beasts and her niece is convinced she has been attacked by one.

“It was a lot of gilded talk, Burke, and I was suspicious of it. Not because I didn’t want to see–but because of that look in Jolly’s eyes, the way he got when people spoke of mineral as thought it were the face of the Lord, well it struck me wrong. But then I got to thnking–don’t we all got a thing makes us get that look in our eyes? All of us who ever said, let’s go, let’s go on, who starved for the sight of something new? Perhaps it ain’t the same.” (P. 343)

That is lots to handle in one fateful day, and if you add in run-ins with long-time neighbours and friends, and a sense that any sort of dream of a good and happy life is slipping from her fingers even as her imagined dead infant daughter talks to her on a constant basis, and you can well understand why it is that Nora begins to wonder if life holds any real promise for her.

She is too forthright and brutally real a woman to hold truck with any idea of giving up or melodramatically throwing in the towel, but as the day and night progresses and things both harsh and fantastical infuse her existence, you can appreciate why she might be rethinking whether life, the one she wanted and imagined and never quite realised, has anything left for her.

The two stories of wholly disparate people might not seem to connect at all but Obreht weaves her magic in Inland, and you begin to see that not only do Lurie and Nora share more in common than either might realise but that they are the recipients, whether they want them or not, of great truths about life and living.

Told with the kind of luminously beautiful prose that makes you want to memorise every last word you read, Inland is a wonder, a novel full to the brim with the kind of darkness and loss we don’t want to attribute to life lest we make it all but unliveable and yet so truthful and redemptive in its honesty that you can’t help feeling that perhaps there is some hope for the future, flawed to hell though it may be.

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