Book Review: ‘Inland: A Novel’ Drives Through A Long Dusty Road With Little Reward At The End

Review by Adrina Palmer

In the lawless, drought-ridden lands of the Arizona Territory in 1893, two extraordinary lives unfold. Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life — her husband, who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons, who have vanished after an explosive argument. Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home.

I need to tell you before you read my review; I am not a literary reader. A book should take me on a thrill ride far away from home and avoid dusty novels focused on painting pictures instead of painting a story. If you want the art form and the beauty of words colliding more than a story, then this book may suit you far better than it suited me. The story carries a certain amount of merit to be sure but not on my ledger. I expect high school bookshelves loaded with classroom amounts of the novel before too many years pass at Tea Obreht’s book fits the bill of visual, literary work worthy of showing children quality over quantity.

The very first chapter veered away from my preferences as most school books do. Who has the time to decipher the inside of someone else’s head when their own is so full of day-to-day worries? Feed me a story I can digest not one I have to chew on for hours to find some hidden clue. Also, give me a book with a discernible plot. Let me introduce you to the two different characters.

Lurie, also called Misafir, and a few other names along the way, shares his story in the first person. Often his story shares as if he were writing a letter to his camel, Burke. Yes, you read that right. As far as I can infer from the pages, Lurie’s hard life in the 1880s leads from one group of misfits to another until he settled into some cameleers and finally found a kindred spirit in an animal over eight feet tall with muddy fur and two humps. His story spans decades marking his harsh life in ink. I understand how difficult his life was but did not reconcile with a character so hard to reach and understand.

Understanding where or why he was going got lost in the translation of exploring the physical scenery instead of offering valuable information. This story almost became interesting as Lurie could see a ghost and even converse with them. But somehow this interesting information trickled down to nothing until his ability disappeared along with my interest. What’s the point in sharing this ability if not to make it a relevant aspect of the story?

Another story took up more presence in the pages. Nora, a mother of three boys, waits at her home for the return of her husband Emmett who left several days before, searching for water as a drought has overrun their town and left them almost unable to live. Poor Nora has more on her plate than any one woman should have to deal with while her husband is away. First, her older two boys, grown men really, leave to find their father as they think him dead by a local nemesis. Her younger son Toby thinks himself hunted by a local monster based on tracks found close to their drought-ridden home. Further, Emmett thrusts the care of his niece Josie upon Nora’s care along with her irrelevant ability to see a ghost. Another fun storyline lost in the pages after the introduction.

Nora needs water, her son to stop hunting monsters and take a nap, her decrepit chair-bound mother-in-law to care of herself, and for Josie to not leave the door open and allow all the water left to disappear to the wild animals. Unlike Lurie’s story, Nora’s spans only a day or maybe two and from the third person no less. Not like we needed this to further differentiate the two main characters. They are as different as night and day. Not that it matters, as no plot ever fully forms, we just wait to find out where Lurie will end up with his camel in tow and if Nora’s men will return home to save her from dying of thirst.

Nora’s story comes full of people, the local sheriff, a doctor, and a few others in town but for the most part, we stay home with her in her tiny world centered on her small family still at home and the dead daughter who haunts her every step. This may well be the only shared quality between the two main lines, both come with an implausible companion.

I would gladly gallivant through the Midwest in the 1880s with the promise of action, time-travel or even the ghosts introduced, if the road was not so dusty and the story so difficult to follow. What little plot that prevailed was easy to figure out after only a couple of chapters, that is the point where the two characters intersect but the road to their meeting was hindered by irrelevant people, places, and sights. What happened to telling the audience why they are on the road?

The whole story was like watching a movie about someone staring out the window of the car through flatlands for hundreds if not thousands of miles. However, the saving grace was focusing on Nora and her understandable plight. If not for her story, the book would be too dry to swallow, even drier than her location.

Lurie’s story, like his multiple name changes and far too many other outlaws like himself, was lost in translation from the author’s head to the page. What would be so wrong with sharing relevant information and a reason for following a man on a camel? Not to mention, a little consistency. Lurie’s name doesn’t even come up in the first chapter as we run through a series of slides spanning his younger years. Furthermore, the second chapter about Lurie changes pace dramatically from the first as if just another trick to throw the reader off course just because you can.

‘Inland’ may win a beauty contest and while I am by no means a lyrical writer, I can appreciate Tea Obreht’s gift of beauty and even her vast vocabulary and knowledge but her book will only appeal to a tiny scope of readers and they had better be patient as the story meanders slowly down a long dusty road with no destination in mind.

Available in bookstores August 13th

James McDonald
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