A close read of Inland, the rare novel with a perfect ending
"She saw it all." The four words that end Inland read like the debris from a breathtaking literary explosion. Over its 350-plus pages, the new novel by Téa Obreht alternates with mythmaking flair between the entire life of Lurie, a wanted outlaw who adventures around the American West, and a day in the life of Nora, a frontierswoman residing in the Arizona territory circa 1893. Their journeys converge in Inland's grand finale, an abstract masterpiece that distills everything these two characters carry into montage — blurring past and future, dead and living, pain and joy. The impetus for it? A horde of ghosts, a blind camel, and a sip of water.
So, spoilers. Rarely, a literary ending comes along that feels too perfect to limit to safe, vague praise. I'm not talking about the wild twists or clever reframings that've distinguished some of the year's buzzier titles. Inland derives every dollop of its narrative tension from its climax-oriented structure, paralleling two character studies that must, by the laws of good storytelling, intersect. Obreht brilliantly approaches this inevitability by weaving it into the fabric of her haunted setting, where fate can't help but grab the steering wheel.
This is Obreht's first novel since her 2011 debut, The Tiger's Wife, an immersive magical-realist family tale set in an unnamed Balkan country during the mid-20th century. (It was nominated for the National Book Award.) That she'd follow it up with a western? You could call the move bold. But the shift feels seamless. Obreht is a robust writer: There's meat on her characters, places, plots, themes, dialogue — all vividly rendered, deep and fresh and exciting, offering plenty to chew on.
Frontierswoman Nora makes up Inland's heart. Her husband, Emmett, is a failing newspaperman who hasn't been seen in days; he left, supposedly, to collect water, but their struggling town of Amargo is enduring a horrid drought. She can't say where her older sons, Rob and Dolan, have gone, either — the night before, she fought with them over the family's dwindling prospects in Amargo, and they left in a huff. Rumors eventually swirl that Emmett has been killed and Rob and Dolan are on the lam for avenging his death. Nora is left, parched and lonely, to care for her youngest, Toby; Emmett's potentially psychic teenaged relative, Josie; and her paralyzed mother-in-law.
Over the course of the day, Nora encounters various townspeople: Desma, an old friend and Amargo's cofounder, grappling with its seeming demise; Doc Almenara, a wily old man yearning for the days of greater promise; and Sheriff Harlan Bell, the man Nora fell hard for, years ago, as her marriage fizzled. "She thought of Harlan sometimes as a fellow combatant with whom she had resolved never to speak of how close to disaster the battle had brought them," Obreht writes of their current dynamic. "That they could be sentimental of the unspoken truth of their friendship was enough." Nora emerges as a fascinating, gritty character: We learn about her upbringing of "unboundedness" and how she married Emmett "for love," see how she lashes out at her sons and friends as she "hardens" — a process Obreht details in a particularly arresting paragraph of character work:
Nora had gone to considerable lengths to steel herself for the life into which she'd followed [Emmett]. This had required hardening…. Even if she had wanted to remain soft, the work would not allow it. Two people at full strength could barely manage all the chores of a homestead: plowing, sowing, raising fence. And if Desma, if her own mother…were hard women, then Nora must be, too. It must never be said of her that she had succumbed to the trials of her life and had to be gentled back to some easier state of existence.
Where Obreht conjures a bleak (read: dry) picture of the West in Nora's anchoring story, she finds its wonder in Lurie's saga. In the book's opening chapter, which traces the man's childhood (including his emigration from Southeast Europe) and adolescence, his father dies, he falls in with an outlaw gang, and he's later wanted for the murder of a "New York man" — a killing which puts him on the run. His sections are written in the first person, addressed to what at first reads like an unknown entity. Only later do we realize he's talking to a camel.
This camel, called Burke, is Obreht's brightest creation. He is Lurie's companion across endless redrocked landscapes. "My first day in the saddle, sickened by your rolling, I looked down at our many-legged shadow running out over the grass, lengthening in the dying sun, and found my throat gone tight," Lurie narrates. "It struck me, without doubt, that I had somehow wanted my way into a marvel that had never before befallen this world." They bond as Lurie rides and hides among the United States Camel Corps — a real historical thing! — but, all told, they travel thousands of miles, from Texas to Montana to Wyoming and sometimes back again, often in isolation. Obreht indulges the pleasures of great travelogues here, and employs these sections — slimmer than Nora's, and slightly harder to track — for philosophical purposes, too, compelling her reader to ruminate on time's passage, how people and stories and worlds live on after they pass. "Who would speak of these things when we were gone?" Lurie asks. "I began to wish that I could pour our memories into the water we carried, so that anyone drinking might see how it had been."
All this and I haven't mentioned that both Nora and Lurie talk to the dead. Nora watches her daughter, Evelyn, grow up alongside her — even though Evelyn died as a baby girl, of heatstroke; they talk, Evelyn guiding her mother through guilt and sadness. And Lurie sees ghosts everywhere he goes; they occupy, and soon overwhelm, his very being. He asks: "Must I now forever fill up with the wants of any dead who touched me, all who'd come before me?"
One spirit that guides him is Donovan, formerly of Lurie's teen outlaw family and, later, hanged in a town Lurie and the Camel Corps pass through. Donovan's ghost gives Lurie his water canteen, which Lurie never empties — only fills, "even if it was nearly brimming, so the water within mixed and tasted of everything: earth and iron and soil and the rain that spent half the day threatening and the other half flooding everybody out of the bunkhouse." The canteen contains, in other words, lifetimes — the tattered hopes that brought loners and families and communities alike out West, dreaming of gold but faced with dirt.
Which brings us to the ending. Over the years, Lurie and Burke endure hardship amid adventure; they wind up in the Arizona territory, the former on his last legs, his dying wish that his companion finally "rest." They're drawn to Amargo, for Lurie hears Evelyn's spirit beckoning; they sleep in Nora's abandoned springhouse, only for Burke — who's gone blind — to helplessly trash it. They encounter Josie, who sees in Burke a "beast"; days later, Burke, terrified, tramples her accidentally (an event teased in the novel's opening paragraph).
By the time Nora finds them in the dark of the night, Lurie is dead, Burke close. Fate — drought, Evelyn, grief — has brought these souls together. Nora looks at the pair, man and beast, and takes on Lurie's dying wish with cosmic empathy. "In the path of what should have been her terror was another, broader, more urgent one: that the camel, if she failed to hit it, might find itself ongoing," Obreht writes. "The sorrow of its suffering journey — what the hell did she know of its suffering journey? — rushed into her, like a dream of the abyss. There was nothing at the bottom."
So Nora shoots Burke — lays him to rest. The scene is powerful in a muted, pained sort of way. Nora calls Toby over to look at the dead animal; he runs back to the house, frightened, leaving her alone once more. She eases Lurie's body off the saddle, and grabs the tin canteen — "marked with the crossbraces of some nameless legion." She pulls it loose and hears "the strangest thing — the singing tumble of water," at long last. She listens a little more. Then she drinks.
What Obreht pulls off here is pure poetry. It doesn't feel written so much as extracted from the mind in its purest, clearest, truest form. When Nora sips the water, she really does see it "all." Time and memory collapse into each another. She tastes the journeys of Lurie and Burke and so many others who've come and gone. She senses her family leaving Amargo, finally with nothing left, but Evelyn and Emmett still follow her — present, but not. She mourns her old Amargo house, "where they had lived once, and yes, been happy." There's something deeply devastating about this conclusion, embedded as it is with the tragic reality of its dusty milieu — the death, the heartbreak, the broken promises — and yet there is Nora, a hard woman as ever, loving and losing. She will fight another day. A