by Téa Obreht
Random House, 2019
“Most people ‘love’ the desert by driving through it in air-conditioned cars, ‘experiencing’ its grandeur,” writes Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, his 1986 investigation of the American West’s water crisis. “To really experience the desert…[y]ou have to imagine what it would be like to drink blood from a lizard or, in the grip of dementia, claw bare-handed through sand and rock for the vestigial moisture beneath a dry wash.” He cautions, “One does not really conquer a place like this. One inhabits it like an occupying army and makes, at best, an uneasy truce with it.”
What becomes of the humans who settle a cracked, blistering landscape? In Téa Obreht’s second novel, Inland, they design lives more suited to the climates they left behind. And then, inevitably, they harden. The human body is a leaking, crumbling, compromising thing; only those who deny these realities can build a life in the desert. Nora, one of Inland’s protagonists, has spent most of her thirty-seven years raising three sons in Arizona Territory while her husband runs the local printing press. Like so many others in the 19th century, Nora and Emmett fled disaster by heading West, seduced by tales of “cloudless blue skies and green fields for grazing.” They found a promised land plagued by monsoons, drought, pests, and lawlessness. Still, they survived year by year, forming loyalties while their family and town grew.
A few overheard words can reframe a life, though. The family takes in a young woman named Josie, and one night Emmett counsels their older sons that Josie belongs where women are softer, more delicate. For an eavesdropping Nora, it’s cold confirmation that at some point, her husband stopped seeing her as a lady: “She was a tough, opinionated, rangy, sweating mule of a thing, and the sum total of her life’s work was her husband of twenty years enumerating what he desired for his sons—which did not include a companion with her qualities.” Meanwhile, a wealthy local rancher plots to isolate the town, maneuvering construction of a long-awaited railroad branch to a different locale. If their town disappears, a panicky Nora reflects, they may as well have never existed. “All the little details of life,” all their labor and hope and heartache, “would have been for nothing.” Inland features far more reflection than action, but Obreht maintains emotional momentum with these looming uncertainties. She relishes moments when the otherwise confident, decisive Nora plants her foot on a stair in the darkness, only to find the stair has disappeared from under her.
But personal conflicts shrink before a merciless fact of the desert: No amount of human drama can be sustained for long without water. When we meet Nora on a morning in 1893, she’s spent three days waiting for Emmett to return with their usual delivery. Already drowsy from thirst, defiant about her desperation, she approaches this particular day like any other. Meanwhile, the novel lopes in and out of a parallel story starring an outlaw named Lurie. In contrast to Nora’s single day, we track Lurie across many years, beginning with his childhood immigration from Bosnia and following his journeys all over the West. His life is a collage of harsh figures and landscapes, of brutal jobs and failed missions. He narrates it all for the sake of a friend who, through a miracle of biology, can survive for long stretches without water.
Nora is Obreht’s most fully-fleshed creation to date. Her widely praised debut, The Tiger’s Wife, was more notable for its trancelike vividness, and its magnetic weaving of history and folklore, than for any depth of individual characters. With Inland, she’s drawn on an entirely different skill set. Readers observe Nora’s memories, mannerisms, flaws, fears, humor, and love. And yet, like with any real person, she seems to exist beyond the reach of list-worthy qualities. Josie in many ways would be a more typical choice of heroine. It’s in their interactions that readers most clearly envision how other characters would frame Nora in their own life stories—and have the vertiginous sense that Nora sees this too. Lurie is more in the vein of what Obreht’s previous readers will expect from her. His sections are hazier, with language that veers from matter-of-fact to the bewildering side of poetic. On some pages, readers will find, “Dead miners roamed the streets and the little graveyard on the hill, singing their strangled lullabies.” On others, “[He] had been born looking like a wall-eyed carrot.”
The dabs of magical realism extend far beyond graveyard specters. Lurie is haunted wherever he goes by ghosts of those who died unfulfilled, and various transitory images appear to him depending on the source of the water he drinks. Nora is haunted by the voice of her daughter who died in infancy, and in a less sinister take on Beloved, feels that her daughter’s soul inhabits every crevice of their home. Frivolous use of magical realism is something this reviewer has come to dread, but despite how these otherworldly details appear out of context, they fit fairly seamlessly into the overall texture of the story. Obreht treads carefully, and she also plays with Josie’s role as a half-baked medium whose séances and fainting spells disgust Nora. She’d never be taken in by that nonsense, Nora thinks—right before she turns around and converses with her lost child. “That is not the same thing,” she defends herself when confronted with the comparison.
There’s an anticipatory tedium to converging narratives that Inland can’t quite overcome. For the most part, these dual stories would work just as effectively in isolation. When connections arise, they’re lovely and fitting and, inescapably, a little too neat. If anything really binds the novel, it’s a hungry longing on every page. Lurie and Nora don’t share the contemporary frustration of thinking they deserve better lives, but they do dare to imagine, in bursts, that things could become just a little easier, a little more certain. “He never stopped wanting this or that,” rues a character near the end. “People get it into their heads that it’s always just around the corner.” Lurie, “a little affronted, a little foolish,” replies, “Well. What if it is?”
Readers have waited for Obreht’s second novel since 2011. It seemed like too much to hope that a writer who had been praised to the skies and back, who had become the youngest ever winner of the Women’s Prize, could continue to produce in a way that lacked self-consciousness. That a debut with strong autobiographical overtones could be succeeded by more difficult feats of empathy and imagination. That Inland, a novel guaranteed to appear on every “most anticipated” list before a word of it had been written, could truly invest readers instead of just intriguing them. Well. What if it does?
—Jennifer Helinek's reviews have also appeared in Kirkus and The Millions. Amongst other nondescript qualities, she works in publishing and lives in New York.