“She learned letters and manners from the pale, dismayed wives of her father’s subordinates, who raised her to defend the hearth and revile a lie – nominally at least, for the older she grew the more she came to recognize falsehood as the preservative that allowed the world to maintain its shape. The lumbermen, for instance, talked of her father as a fearsome man: proud, immense, and daunting. Their reticence about his more vulnerable qualities – his superstitions about the weather, or his habit of leaving a little drop of something at the bottom of his glass to placate the Devil – allowed him to go through life undiminished. He, in turn, lauded the hospitality and vigor of his wife, blind or indifferent to the well-known fact that years on the trail had made her rheumatic and closely allied to whiskey.”
Place, when written well, can become as viscerally alive to a novel’s reader as its characters. Think of the relentlessly untamed Yorkshire moors of Wuthering Heights or the dusty solitude favoured by John Steinbeck’s countless masterpieces and it is clear that, in the right hands, the features of a novel’s setting can become its most powerful asset. With this, however, comes the inevitable flow of character bias that typically draws inspiration from our most renowned classics. Cast your mind to the smoky turrets of London factories and its rain-soaked streets and one immediately conjures pictures of top hats and the scurrying businessmen of many a Charles Dickens novel. England’s lustrous fields evoke similarly unquestioned images of tremulous spinsters and bonneted heroines. Much of this has to do with the strength of particular literary masterpieces to capture our conception of place and time, handing us associations that we carry forward into our reading lives. In many cases, we exist with a kind of unconscious bias about what we expect to see whenever we become acquainted with a novel’s setting – and, in these instances, authors have the potential to disconcert stereotypes that we weren’t even aware existed in ourselves.
Perhaps one of the most powerful associations between place and person is America’s frontier. Thanks to a prolific history in both books and films, the unrivalled chaos of the wild west is viewed as the exclusive terrain of gun-toting cowboys and an accompanying entourage of sheriffs, bandits, and lusty maidens. The mythic quality of western settlements, in both the foreboding nature of the climate and its lawless distance from civilisation, lends itself handily to our desire for simplicity. We have learnt to populate this landscape with the characters that we have been told exist there – even though we are all certainly aware that history offers a far more complex reality than any of these fictional renderings. Although such biases can be incredibly inconvenient and, in certain settings, dangerous, their inevitability makes for some powerful contradictions. In Téa Obreht’s newest release, Inland, the author introduces a profoundly unique degree of authenticity to our understandings of the American west. While the setting still evokes all the personality of its uncomfortable isolation from convenience, her narrative – and the characters through which she paints her landscape – are alive with a complex vibrancy almost entirely absent from our notions of this space.
“When those men rode down to the fording place last night, I thought us done for. Even you must realize how close they came: their smell, the song of their bridles, the whites of their horses’ eyes. True to form – blind though you are, and with that shot still irretrievable in your thigh – you made to stand and meet them. Perhaps I should have let you. It might have averted what happened tonight, and the girl would be unharmed. But how could I have known? I was unready, disbelieving of our fate, and in the end could only watch them cross and ride up the wash away from us in the moonlight.”
Inland follows the stories of Nora Chance and Lurie Mattie – two characters separated by both background and distance until their lives intersect by chance. Nora and her husband Emmett are early settlers of a small town in Arizona, living under threat of constant drought and a political battle that could leave their settlement economically bust. From the novel’s outset, Nora is effectively alone. Her husband, who rode off to retrieve the family’s regular supply of water, has not returned, and her two eldest sons have disappeared. As Nora awaits news of her family, the novel takes us through her decision to follow her husband as he searched for the right opportunity and as the couple eventually set up home in one of America’s most challenging environments. At the same time, Obreht introduces us to Lurie Mattie. An immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, Lurie is attempting to leave behind his life as an orphaned outlaw and throws in his lot with a group of camel herders brought over to the US to form the United States Camel Corps. Lurie ends up embarking upon an epic trip across western America as he attempts to avoid both the wants of the dead spirits hounding him and the law that continues to seek his neck.
Inland‘s most obvious and immediate selling-point is its unique perspective. Into an era that oozes popular conceptions of traditional masculinity are introduced two characters that embody contradictions of this conventional narrative. Not only does the novel convey a sense of historical authenticity in the issues that the characters face – the daily worry of water access, the politics of settlements, and the all-too-familiar relationship between money and power – it repositions this notion of historical place in a way that makes space for vital voices. While we are all aware that women and immigrants must have had their role in the history of the American west, these stories are lost with surprising ease to continued social priorities and structures – namely the celebration of traditional masculinity and a desire to ignore the contribution of minority groups through history. While there is a definite trend toward the rewriting of history to incorporate silenced voices – the popularity of contemporary retellings of classical myth, as with Pat Barker’s aptly titled The Silence of the Girls or Madeline Miller’s Circe, is one example – there are still periods that remain relatively untouched. That Obreht seeks to challenge the extensive mythologies that we’ve written around the American west is a testament to both her skill and creative courage.
Since my love of literature walks hand-in-hand with my passion for human rights, it is no surprise that I am desperately attached to the books that rework our biases – particularly those prejudices steeped in the kind of culturally-permitted xenophobia and racism that still exists today. In Inland, Obreht reeducates her readers on their own engagement with history. That she is able to write voices so believable in their own sense of exclusion and conflict only further consolidates the incredible execution of this book. Nora Chance, in particular, is one of the most perfect examples of a fully-realised voice in fiction. The complex feelings that she has towards her marriage, her sense of unwilling attachment to a home that has seen both life and death, and the strained betrayal that accompanies her relationship with the local sheriff – these webs of emotions and dynamics coexist with impressive ease under Obreht’s hand. Through Nora, Obreht also executes a skilful examination of femininity in this period of western settlement. Nora’s own necessary machismo, as well as her explicit derision of the many ‘too feminine’ characteristics of her husband’s cousin, feel, in many places, forced by circumstance. That Nora is fundamentally a product of the harsh environment in which she has had to build a life is abundantly clear. Her wilful self-reliance is refreshing.
“They were all moving past each other, the mother and the little girl and the old man, too – and it struck me, after all these years of seeing the dead, as I stood there holding your bridle and with your breath in my hair, that I had never seen more than one at a time, and had never realized: they were unaware of each other’s presence. Suddenly, the gruesome way they had fallen seemed the least mournful thing about this place. They could see the living, but not one another. Nameless and unburied, turned out suddenly into the bewildering dark, they rose to find themselves entirely alone.”
Beyond her choice of narrators, Obreht steps outside of the conventional by introducing the supernatural – albeit in a limited way – to the narrative. Anyone who has read the author’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, will know how easily Obreht plays with fabulism to reinforce the contemporary political and social dynamics in which she is interested. In The Tiger’s Wife, Balkan mythology is rewritten in the words of a grandfather, posing an interesting and disconcerting tension with the violence of war and its fallout. In Inland, Lurie Mattie’s ability to see and interact in a limited way with ghosts operates in a similar vein. That death abounds in the narrative is obvious from the novel’s opening pages – the early death of Lurie’s father, as well as his closest friends, and the uncertain fate of Nora’s missing family in a time of crippling drought are impressed upon the reader from the outset. While this dabbling in the supernatural at no point coopts the novel, it is used to reinforce both the harsh realities of the environment and the wanton wilfulness that seems to walk with death in this place. It is a far cry from the heroism that accompanies mortality and its avoidance in traditional depictions of life in the wild west.
There is no doubt that Inland is one of 2019’s most impressive releases and there is little to criticise in its pages. While Obreht’s astounding narrative ability was vibrantly on show in The Tiger’s Wife, Inland proves that this author will not be limited by the pressure of expectations. In many respects, Inland shows a maturity of broad insight in which the author’s debut novel chose not to deal. The Tiger’s Wife – drawing inspiration from Obreht’s own childhood and the stories of her grandfather – felt highly personal, a piece of work that did much to commemorate the centrality of heritage. Inland operates in terrain that feels totally new, to both the author and the reader. For a novel that deals so explicitly in death, it is a book that vibrates with presence, existing on the cusp of mortal fear in an environment that demands constant sacrifice.