It wasn’t just that she was only 25.
Or that she was writing in a second language.
The real miracle was the book itself.
When Téa Obreht’s debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” appeared in 2011, we ran out of superlatives. The story’s macabre humor reminded me of Isaac Bashevis Singer. In her magical realism, others heard echoes of Gabriel García Márquez. All agreed that her complex tale of life and loss and remembrance in the Balkans marked the arrival of an extraordinary writer.
Now, eight years later, Obreht’s second novel, “Inland,” has arrived. Set in the 19th-century American West, the story may strike U.S. readers as less exotic than her dreamy tales of Yugoslavia, but surreal elements still infuse these pages. In this country, Obreht has found soil just as fertile for the propagation of myth and the complications of cruelty.
“Inland” interweaves two distinct story lines that resonate with each other in curious ways. The first is narrated by a man known as Lurie, a young grave robber who graduates to notorious outlaw. Pursued by desperate ghosts and a marshal who will never give up, Lurie runs for his life until he spots a caravan of animals that can’t possibly be in America: “jangling monstrosities … like lions uddered the wrong way up.” Children gawk, women scream, and men reach for their guns. But Lurie watches the creatures in awe: “Their eyelids are thatched with the loveliest lashes God ever loomed. They are sturdy from their ears to the soles of their feet,” he says. “And their great height lays all the horizon to view.”
They’re camels — and Lurie is smitten. In fact, his entire narration is spoken to his own camel, named Burke, who’s “unslowed by age and unafraid of anything.”
Plenty of fantastical details gallop through “Inland,” but, remarkably, the U.S. Army Camel Corps is not one of them. Considering the treacherous and arid land of the American West, in 1855 Congress really did appropriate $30,000 for the War Department to import about three dozen camels for military service. Under the command of a national hero named Edward Fitzgerald Beale, these willful beasts were sent on a surveying expedition to California.
Obreht has excavated this weird historical footnote and inserted her haunted hero into the middle of it. As a cameleer, Lurie rides with the Camel Corps across some of the country’s driest and most treacherous land. Conflicts with regular soldiers on horseback are a constant irritation, but the real fear is Indians, who seem strangely absent. “Beale reckoned word had got around,” Lurie says, “that we were traveling with monsters.”
It’s a voyage of hilarious and harrowing adventures, told in the irresistible voice of a restless, superstitious man determined to live right but tormented by his past. At times, it feels as though Obreht has managed to track down Huck Finn years after he lit out for the Territory and found him riding a camel. She has such a perfectly tuned ear for the simple poetry of Lurie’s vision. Everywhere he goes, he feels the presence of those murdered, starved or eaten by wolves — the shocked spirits that linger in the desert, still surprised by their condition: “Nameless and unburied, turned out suddenly into that darkness, they rose to find themselves entirely alone.”
While Lurie’s story spans many years and traverses thousands of miles across Mexico and the United States, the story told in alternating chapters is rooted in one small town on a single day. Nora is a sharp-tongued woman trying to hold down a home in the Arizona Territory in 1893. Her husband is the feckless editor of a local newspaper caught in a political conflict over moving the county seat, a change that would kill off their own remote town.
On the day we meet her, Nora has run out of water — a calamity that Obreht conveys with such visceral realism that each copy of “Inland” should come with its own canteen. But even as Nora tries to convince herself that relief must surely be on the way, other concerns scratch at the edges of her mind. Where, for instance, has her husband gone? And where are her two older sons? She’s left alone to distract her imaginative little boy from his own gathering terrors. It doesn’t help that she’s also saddled with her husband’s batty cousin, a young woman who speaks confidently about her interactions with the dearly departed.
Obreht narrates this section in the third person, but she stays close to Nora’s mind, allowing us to see that, despite how much she mocks spiritualism, she’s carrying on an endless conversation with her own dead daughter. These pages are a sprawling boneyard of restless spirits, and Nora is a woman conflicted in so many ways, seared by unrelenting drought, crooked politics and tragic family circumstances. The story creeps through this fateful day with rising alarm and thirst, shimmering with barely constrained rage.
The unsettling haze between fact and fantasy in “Inland” is not just a literary effect of Obreht’s gorgeous prose; it’s an uncanny representation of the indeterminate nature of life in this place of brutal geography. Ferrying water from the Colorado River, Lurie realizes that he has “gone the way of unbearable old men,” telling stories of an improbable, lost country. “Who would speak of these things when we were gone?” he asks his loyal camel. “I began to wish that I could pour our memories into the water we carried, so that anyone drinking from our canteen might see how it had been.”
Sip slowly, make it last.
“Inland” by Téa Obreht, Random House, 384 pp., $27
Author appearance: Téa Obreht will read from “Inland” at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, elliottbaybook.com