Friday 5 June 2020

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Inland by Téa Obreht     {Reviewed by STELLA}
Meet Nora, a tough raw-edged frontierswoman awaiting the return of her husband, Emmett, three days late with the water. It’s Arizona 1893 and the drought has left the land dry and Nora’s mouth even drier. Over the course of this novel, we will spend 24 hours at the homestead with Nora as she contemplates her future. Emmett has not returned with the much-needed water; her adult sons have taken off in search of their father or revenge, her youngest is dreaming up visions of a beast wandering the property, and Josie, their live-in helper is also insistent that something or someone is haunting them. Add to this Nora’s internal monologue with her own long-dead daughter and it is hardly surprising that this is a woman under pressure and at a crossroads. She’s also surprisingly naive and sentimental despite her hardness. Our other protagonist is Lurie, a man on the run — an outlaw hounded across the frontier by Berger, a lawman who won’t give up. Lurie arrives in America with his father — but fortune does not smile on them. His father dies and the child finds himself a slave in a doss house until the Mattie brothers take him under their wing. As the brothers become more infamous they make a mistake and then the law is on their tail. As they go their separate ways in a bid to outrun the law, Lurie reinvents himself, travelling deeper into the desert, and on the fringes of society he is always on the move. And it is on his wanderings that he makes his greatest discovery and friendship with Burke, a camel. Camels in the wild west were not exactly what I was expecting in this novel — but this is based on fact. An army officer called Beale had commissioned a herd of camels along with their cameleers from Turkey and Syria to accompany him and his troops as they lay the ground for the settlers across the unforgiving deserts. Lurie is nicknamed Misafar and he finds a ‘home’ with his fellow Mediterraneans, especially Hi Jolly (Hadji Ali). Yet, it’s not to last with Berger on his tail and getting ever closer. As the stakes rise, he takes Burke and goes his separate way — a way that can only lead to running further. Tea Obreht weaves these stories expertly — at times you are unsure as to what is going on and where you are being led to but this is the wonder in the story. Where is Emmett? Why is Nora so set on upending what fragile equilibrium she and her family have? How are Lurie and Nora connected? And what do some see in the darkness? Obreht unwinds her novel like a spool of barbed wire, letting us feel our way along with sharp tugs to keep us alert. As with her previous novel, The Tiger’s Wife, there are elements of the surreal and the supernatural — Josie can sense spirits and Lutir ‘sees’ the dead — the wandering, lost souls that litter the frontier — souls that call out to him and try to bind their desires to him. And it is unrequited desires that drive Nora — a woman who hardly knows or dares to know herself, for to do so would make it impossible to live a practical life. This is the American West as only Tea Obreht could write it: breaking stereotypes, confounding us with striking histories that seems so bizarre it can only be true and making the land reel off the page to haunt and embrace us.

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