I loved Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, so I was eager to read her new offering. Inland is set in the American West in the late 1800s, and one of its two main plot threads concerns a little-known piece of history: the attempt to use camels as pack animals for the US Army. The fictional main character Lurie joins up with the Camel Corps after being caught stealing from one of the camel drivers, a real historical figure known as Hi Jolly (because no one in the 1800s can be bothered to pronounce Hadji Ali). Lurie has two secrets: he’s a wanted outlaw, and he’s haunted by the ghost of his foster brother.
The other story thread concerns a woman living in the tiny town of Amargo, Arizona. As the book opens, Nora is waiting for her husband to return to their homestead with much-needed water. Her youngest son insists he’s seen a strange beast on her property, and a feckless relative of her husband claims to have seen the ghost of a “lost man.”
I’ve quoted William Faulkner’s line about how the past isn’t dead and isn’t even really past in a couple of other reviews because it’s a common theme in literature. Lurie and Nora are both haunted by their pasts, and in at least one case, that haunting is literal. In the hands of a lesser author, that premise could easily become trite, but Obreht makes you feel for the characters and infuses the idea with real meaning. Similarly, she reinvigorates the conventional trope of “a boy and his dog” by making the dog a camel. The way she turns stories we’ve all seen before on their heads is one of the greatest strengths of the book. It doesn’t hurt that the camel-drivers have some truly hair-raising adventures along the way.
The section of the book set in Amargo is also compelling. We see first-hand how hard life there is, but we can also understand why people like Nora are unwilling to let it be swallowed up by the larger and more successful town of Ash River. Tobey is an endearing character, and a revelation late in the book about the depth of Nora’s husband’s love for her is genuinely moving. None of the main characters are without flaws—sometimes serious ones—yet we can’t help wanting them to succeed.
The one major flaw in the novel is that it takes so long for the two story threads to join up. Reading Inland feels a bit like reading two different books with similar themes at the same time, rather than reading a single coherent narrative. But those narratives are engaging enough that I still enjoyed the book, and I’m looking forward to whatever Obreht does next.