Inland by Téa Obreht

Weidenfeld & Nicolson| 13 August 2019| 386 pages| Review copy| 3*

Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life, biding her time with her youngest son – who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home – and her husband’s seventeen-year-old cousin, who communes with spirits.

Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West.

Mythical, lyrical, and sweeping in scope, Inland is grounded in true but little-known history. It showcases all of Téa Obreht’s talents as a writer, as she subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely – and unforgettably – her own.

My thoughts:

Inland by Téa Obreht has had many accolades, including being named one of the best books of the year by The Guardian, Time, Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, and The New York Public Library. I love the cover and the description made me keen to read it. It’s a book that has been on my NetGalley shelf for far too long, I’m sorry to say, mainly because each time I began reading it I struggled to understand what was going on.

It is a book of two halves really, alternating between the two storylines as the blurb outlines. I found the Lurie narrative difficult to follow at first. It’s vague – at times I didn’t know who was who, who was talking, who was a camel and who was a person. I did work it out eventually! Lurie is a former outlaw, who sees and talks to the dead. He is haunted by the spirit of Hobb, a kid of four or five. But Lurie’s story is slow and meanders. I was losing interest, and often the location was unclear as he moved from place to place. However as I got further into his story I did form a clearer picture of his life as he joined the Camel Corps and became a cameleer. (I was fascinated to discover that camels were used in the American West as pack animals.)

But it’s the second story of Nora Lark and her family, which is much clearer and easier for me to understand. It saved the book for me and made me keen to read on. They are living in Arizona in a homestead. There’s been no rain for months and their water supply is nearly exhausted. Emmett, her husband has gone to get more water and has not returned . Her two sons have gone to look for him, and Nora is left at home with her youngest son, Toby, who is terrified by a mysterious beast he sees around their house at night, and Josie, her husband’s seventeen year old ward and cousin, who see spirits. Nora’s daughter, Evelyn died before her sons were born, under mysterious circumstances, and she is constantly in Nora’s mind as she imagines her growing up and having conversations with her.

Several times as the narrative turned from Nora back to Lurie, I was about to give up on the book, but I wanted to know what happened to the Larks and to find out how the two strands would interlink, or if indeed they ever did interlink (they do). As I read on I began to understand more about Lurie and his life, but it was hard work. If I re-read it I think I would enjoy it more, but I don’t feel inclined to right now. But I really liked Nora’s story and the depiction of life in the American West during the mid-to-late 19th century.

In her acknowledgements Téa Obreht explains that Inland is a work of imagination based in part on the journals, letters and reports of the men who were part of at least one aspect of this history and on the work of the historians of the American West.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy, with apologies for taking so long to read the book.

3 comments

  1. It sounds just a bit like a mix of fantasy and historical novel, Margaret. Sometimes that works really well, and sometimes not so well. I think the same’s true of dual timelines. I can really enjoy them when they’re done well, but it’s harder if they don’t both keep my interest. Still, I’m glad you found some things to like about this one.

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  2. It’s always a pity when one strand of a book works less well for you than the other. On the whole I prefer books to concentrate on one story for that very reason. Glad that half of it was good enough to keep your interest, anyway!

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  3. I enjoyed the review, particularly as I’ve never quite gotten around to Téa Obreht (I’ve read scores of reviews of her work but never made a push to read her novels). I’m afraid that, like you, I’d have some trouble slogging through Inland so if I get to her, this won’t be where I start!
    Isn’t it fascinating about the use of camels in the bad old west? I read about this as a kid, but hadn’t seen any reference to this semi-forgotten bit of history in years.
    It’s interesting that some writers at least are putting their own spin on the mythology of the old west, which had a lot more going on than horses and white male cowboys. There’s a recent book, Zhang’s “How Much of these Hills Is Gold,” which reimagines the Gold Rush from the viewpoint of Chinese immigrants. Although I haven’t yet read it, it’s gotten great reviews.

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