(Seattle): I am not surprised to see that this strange and wondrous novel has generated a wide range of opinions, that it is found by some to be opaque or even pointless. As with Obreht's previous novel, The Tiger's Wife, there is a bit of magical realism to this book, whiffs of Gabriel García Márquez and Cormac McCarthy, particularly the latter in this novel of the American West. This is a fever dream of a book and it's no wonder that not everyone cozies up to it.
But for my money this is an expertly realized, fascinating read, an invocation of a time and place that resonates deeply, all the more so for its tinge of unreality. All of the characters are caught in a nightmare not (entirely) of their own making and are simply making the best they can of their hard lots in the hardscrabble year of 1893.
There are two parallel plots here, the first that of Lurie, an orphaned child who takes up with rough characters and runs as far as he can with them before encountering a train of camels, brought over from Asia by the United States army in the hope that they can do a better job of transporting goods across the American deserts than horses can. This is factual—I have read elsewhere about this effort, which actually seems pretty sensible (but didn't work out all that well). Lurie ingratiates himself with the camel herders and tries as best he can to hang on to the fragile thread of his life. The other plot line involves Nora, a strong, independent woman of the Arizona desert, trying to stay upright in a world that seems to be doing everything it can to destroy her and her family, especially the drought that is turning her farm and the surrounding community to ash and dust. Everything about their lives speaks of dissolution and decay, though Nora does everything she can to keep herself and her three boys afloat. Her husband has been gone for days, out negotiating for the water they so desperately need, and the situation has become dire.
Thirst is the thematic core of these stories. Lurie gathers water everywhere he goes in a canteen previously owned by his adoptive brother, and it whets but never slakes his thirst to know what is coming and what has been. Nora is perpetually dry, sacrificing what little water she has to her children and, eventually, the dressing of wounds.
But no description of plot or theme can scratch the surface of the beauty of this book, which is carried in the expansive prose Obreht employs. While The Tiger's Wife bore the signs of a first-time author, with its too-careful elucidation and somewhat stilted language, in Inland she has come into a mastery of her craft and never sets a foot wrong in climbing this particularly challenging terrain. This is not a perfect book (often motives are obscure and some of the action seems unlikely, even for the hallucinatory reality it lives in), but it is excellent. One must be willing to surrender, though, to the wonderful strangeness of the world evoked here, and this is not always easy. The reward is worth the effort and I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the authors I listed in the first paragraph. While not as accomplished as either of those masters, Téa Obreht is clearly a talent to watch and read.