Inland is a novel about many things: about the idea of home, about what drives us and what haunts us, about a world on the cusp of change. But above all, it is a book about secrets – those we keep from the people who know and love us best, but also those we hide from ourselves.
Téa Obreht’s great skill, in the construction of this book, rests in this kind of withholding – the reader is thrown into the “Wild” American West at the end of the 19th century, and into the lives of its two very different narrators, but the key pieces of information that form the narrative are held back, some of them for the duration of the novel.
Inland opens, for example, in the voice of an outlaw, directly addressing a companion whose name is not revealed for 80 pages, and whose true nature is undisclosed for a further five. This outlaw, Lurie, is a man who has never known a home – and who, while on the run, joins a group of wandering cameleers, “gathered from all parts of the Orient” and brought to America to fight in the frontier wars.
Lurie’s voice is countered by that of Nora, a woman living on the edge of a dying town, waiting for the return of her husband and sons as the water on the property slowly runs out.
Nora is bound to place, where Lurie is anchorless, and bound to her family, where Lurie has none. But Lurie and Nora are both trying to reconcile their pasts with the circumstances they now find themselves in, to reckon with the land they are living on and moving through, and the violence and threat it barely contains. Both, too, are able to commune with the dead – Lurie with the ghosts he encounters wandering in the desert, and Nora with her infant daughter.
As well as these literal ghosts that haunt the novel, Inland is preoccupied with what we do not or cannot fathom, with the troubled pasts we carry, and the spectre of a future that we can neither understand nor prepare for.
It is a portrait of a dying world and the people who cling to it, as well as a renegotiation of forgotten or sidelined histories, all troubled by the wild imagination and Gothic sensibility with which Obreht’s readers will be familiar, and which gives the book its animating force.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 400pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Téa Obreht, Inland". Subscribe here.