Eight years and half a planet separate Téa Obreht’s second novel from her first. The eight years is the time between Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife (2011), and her recent Inland (2019). The half-planet is the distance from the Balkan setting of The Tiger’s Wife and the arid Arizona frontier of Inland.
The narrator and protagonist of The Tiger’s Wife is Natalia, a young medical doctor. She is on her way to deliver medicine and care for orphans at a monastery in war-ravaged Brejevina when she learns that her grandfather, a famous physician, has died, alone and mysteriously, at a clinic in the remote town of Zdrevkov. As Natalia contends with the superstition and hostility of the people of Brejevina, she remembers her grandfather—visiting the zoo with him as a girl, the copy of The Jungle Book he carried everywhere. And she remembers his stories of the Deathless Man, of the fire that consumed the family lake house, and of the “tiger’s wife”—the deaf, mute woman who married the butcher in Galina (the town where her grandfather grew up) and who befriended a tiger that had escaped from a zoo.
Obreht gives every character a rich, surprising life story. As a young man, Luka the butcher, the vicious, abusive husband of the tiger’s wife, went to the city with ambitions to become a gusla player. There he fell in love with Amana, a headstrong poet and artist. Tricked into marrying Amana’s deaf sister and called back to Galina to care for his aging father, Luka channels his frustrations into violence. For Darisa the Bear, a famous hunter who comes to Galina to track the escaped tiger, killing is almost incidental. He’s an artist, “a taxidermist at heart.”
Things, too, are thick with history and mystery. Natalia recalls her search for a skull for a medical school course. She found one on the black market that had belonged to a magician known as the Magnificent Fedrizzi: “In life, this Magnificent Fedrizzi had apparently performed dazzling feats of magic on a Venetian stage—until 1942, when a German audience member, whose woman the Magnificent Fedrizzi had evidently been sharing for some time, put an end to them rather abruptly.” The one gun in Galina, a two-hundred-year-old Ottoman musket, passed from hand to hand to hand, from a defecting Janissary to a Magyar brigand to the brigand’s mistress to a provincial bey to a looter—until it finally reached Galina’s blacksmith.
Obreht is a short story writer. That isn’t a criticism, but it does mean that her books, stylistically and narratively brilliant though they are, are strings of narrative pearls as much as unified novels. Her gifts work well in The Tiger’s Wife, where reminiscence overwhelms action and the past dominates the present—much like the Balkans, we’re invited to think. That doesn’t work as well in Inland, set in an Arizona whose history quickly goes blank. The American West has many enchantments, but historical density isn’t one of them.
Inland follows two characters whose stories run on distinct time frames. We follow a day in the life of Nora, a frontierswoman struggling to survive what seems to be a permanent drought in Amargo, a town in the Arizona Territory in 1893. Her husband Emmett, a newspaper editor, has gone missing after he set out to find water, and her two older sons are absent, too. Nora fends for herself with her youngest son, Toby, her husband’s sickly niece, Jessica, and her frail mother-in-law.
Toby has discovered mysterious tracks near the shed, and a beast tramples Jessica, leaving her permanently crippled. The beast is the point of intersection with the other storyline, that of Lurie, an immigrant from the Balkans on the run for grave robbing and murder. He joins a regiment of the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps (a real thing), and he relates his adventures, which occur over many years, to his camel, Burke.
Like The Tiger’s Wife, Inland skates at the edges of the paranormal. The Deathless Man of Obreht’s first novel is Death’s nephew, cursed to pay off a debt to his uncle by harvesting souls. Nora carries on conversations with her daughter Evelyn, whose death Nora caused and covered up. Lurie sees the dead parading past, bearing what he calls the “wounds of time.”
Inland ends with a Joycean flourish: Nora has a vision of Evelyn and Emmett returned, Toby grown, and water, water, yet more water. But neither the final vision nor Obreht’s humor brightens the bleakness of her novels, shadowed by the violent history of the Balkans and the stark landscape of the Arizona desert. Sometimes wrongs are put right, violently. There are healers, and Obreht’s writing is gorgeous. But her world is one where death reigns, where the heroic option is stoic acceptance and a resolute ethic of service. Healers don’t so much heal as palliate. There’s no rescue from death, nor from the haunting past.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.