It wasn’t just that she was only 25.
Or that she was writing in a second language.
The real miracle was the book itself.
When Téa Obreht’s debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” appeared in 2011, we ran out of superlatives. Her complex tale of life and loss and remembrance in the Balkans, which was a National Book Awards finalist, marked the arrival of an extraordinary writer.
Now, eight years later, Obreht’s second novel, “Inland,” has arrived. Set in the 19th-century American West, the story may strike U.S. readers as less exotic than her dreamy tales of Yugoslavia, but surreal elements still infuse these pages. In this country, the Serbian-American writer has found soil just as fertile for the propagation of myth and the complications of cruelty.
“Inland” interweaves two distinct storylines that resonate with each other in curious ways. The first is narrated by Lurie, a young grave robber who graduates to notorious outlaw. Pursued by desperate ghosts and a marshal who will never give up, Lurie runs for his life until he spots a caravan of animals that can’t possibly be in America: “jangling monstrosities ... like lions uddered the wrong way up.” Children gawk, women scream, and men reach for their guns.
They’re camels — and Lurie is smitten. In fact, his entire narration is spoken to his own camel, named Burke, who’s “unslowed by age and unafraid of anything.”
Plenty of fantastical details gallop through “Inland,” but, remarkably, the U.S. Army Camel Corps is not one of them. Considering the treacherous and arid land of the American West, in 1855 Congress appropriated $30,000 for the War Department to import about three dozen camels for military service. Under the command Edward Fitzgerald Beale, these willful beasts were sent on a surveying expedition to California.
Obreht has excavated this weird historical footnote and inserted her haunted hero into the middle of it. As a cameleer, Lurie rides with the Camel Corps across some of the country’s driest and most treacherous land.
It’s a voyage of hilarious and harrowing adventures, told in the irresistible voice of a restless, superstitious man determined to live right but tormented by his past. At times, it feels as if Obreht has managed to track down Huck Finn years after he lit out for the Territory and found him riding a camel. Everywhere he goes, he feels the presence of those murdered, starved or eaten by wolves — the shocked spirits that linger in the desert, still surprised by their condition: “Nameless and unburied, turned out suddenly into that darkness, they rose to find themselves entirely alone.”
While Lurie’s story spans many years and traverses thousands of miles across Mexico and the United States, the story told in alternating chapters is rooted in one small town on a single day. Nora is a sharp-tongued woman trying to hold down a home in the Arizona Territory in 1893. Her husband is the feckless editor of a local newspaper caught in a political conflict over moving the county seat, a change that would kill off their own remote town.
On the day we meet her, Nora has run out of water — a calamity that Obreht conveys with such visceral realism that each copy of “Inland” should come with its own canteen. But even as Nora tries to convince herself that relief must surely be on the way, other concerns scratch at the edges of her mind. Where, for instance, has her husband gone? And where are her two older sons? She’s left alone to distract her imaginative little boy from his own gathering terrors. It doesn’t help that she’s also saddled with her husband’s batty cousin, a young woman who speaks confidently about her interactions with the dearly departed.
Obreht narrates this section in the third person, but she stays close to Nora’s mind, allowing us to see that, despite how much she mocks spiritualism, she’s carrying on an endless conversation with her own dead daughter. These pages are a sprawling boneyard of restless spirits, and Nora is a woman conflicted in so many ways, seared by unrelenting drought, crooked politics and tragic family circumstances. The story creeps through this fateful day with rising alarm and thirst, shimmering with barely constrained rage.
The unsettling haze between fact and fantasy in “Inland” is not just a literary effect of Obreht’s gorgeous prose; it’s an uncanny representation of the indeterminate nature of life in this place of brutal geography.