In Téa Obreht’s new novel, Inland, the most fearsome villain is also the most inescapable: the weather. After a long drought, the Larks, a homesteading family in the fictional 1893 town of Amargo in the Arizona desert, are down to the last of their water, a dangerous fate in the days before air conditioning made the territory more hospitable. Patriarch Emmett Lark leaves his family to find more, and his wife, Nora, is alone for days with their children, a cousin, and the ghost of her daughter to whom she speaks for solace and practical advice.
It sounds a bit like the set-up for a horror movie, but the beginning of Nora’s solitude is blanketed with a sense of safety. In fact, the uncanniest things a reader will find in Obreht’s vision of the Arizona frontier aren’t the ghosts, though there are plenty of them—the urgent soul of a dead child or the mutating spirits felt by a clairvoyant. Inland takes place in an American West populated by camels, drawing on a little-known episode of history to tell two interlocking stories of people who speak to ghosts: Nora, a frontier housewife afraid to leave the land where her daughter died, and Lurie, an outlaw haunted by his misdeeds who travels the country on the back of his camel. Wherever he goes, Lurie’s camel draws attention, while the spirits who populate the backdrop attract little. Inland is based experiences of an actual shipment of camels that made their way across the country in the years after the Civil War, before some of them ran wild and reproduced in the desert. Here, the camels are plot drivers and symbols for the accidents of history, but Obreht pays close attention to the emotional interactions between the dromedaries and their handlers.
It’s not the first time that Obreht has worked detailed observations of the ways of animals into her work. A personified tiger, escaped from a zoo during wartime, was at the center of her 2011 debut, The Tiger’s Wife. At the time, she told an interviewer that she spent time watching tigers in zoos and nature documentaries to flesh out her verbal depictions. In 2010 The New Yorker named her as one of its “20 Novelists Under 40″ in 2010—before her first book made it to shelves—partially because of those singular observations. At the age of 25, she had already developed a sophisticated vernacular all her own, a world where animals, humans, and the supernatural interacted with the easy suspension of disbelief native to a folktale.
After the wild success of her first novel, Obreht went years without publishing fiction, focusing instead on teaching and research. At the level of plot summary, Inland couldn’t sound any further from its predecessor—and like an incredible departure from the things that made The Tiger’s Wife so unique. But in Obreht’s hands, this tale of the wild west doesn’t linger on the landscape’s specificity in a way that can occasionally inspire purple prose. (Think Eli Cash’s “friscalating dusklight” in The Royal Tenenbaums. )
Territorial Arizona is brought to life as something quite a bit more propositional: the punishing heat is the most relevant descriptor, and its effects what the book’s characters fear the most. It’s also the land where, as people say there now, “the border crossed us”—where Spanish speakers, white settlers from the east, and Native Americans lived near each other in a state of mutual distrust and occasional violence. The paranoia engendered by that arrangement turn interactions between neighbors into tinderboxes, and a subplot about local newspapers foregrounds the difficulty of building a civilization amidst such tumult.
Advertisement Eventually, Nora’s desperate need for water fades into the background as conflicts with neighbors and a former lover grow more severe, and the complexity of the plot resists the answer that Obreht provides in the novel’s beautifully wrought final pages. But a thought of Nora’s captures the novel’s successes after she has listened to a meandering tale herself: “They all had stories, didn’t they, just like this, interminable and essential to the world’s workings.”