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Inland by Téa Obreht review: 33 camels walk into a Texas wharf…

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Inland is Téa Obreht's second novel
Inland is Téa Obreht's second novel Credit: Getty Images

Late one April afternoon in 1856, 33 imported camels walked down the gangplank at Powder Point in Indianola, Texas. They’d been a while in coming. The notion of a “camel convoy” was mooted some 20 years earlier as a novel way of moving military supplies across the arid American desert.

The US Army had been hard to convince, and now the animals had finally been sourced and imported from the Levant, their reception was underwhelming. For the locals standing on the wharf that day, the whole thing seemed like an enormous, lumpy practical joke.

It’s eight years since Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, made her the youngest winner of the Orange Prize. Inland, her second novel, is an equally skilful exploration of myth and fable, and histories both forgotten and elaborated. In the vivid scene near the novel’s opening, the chief camel-driver teases the sceptical crowd, promising that his “big, toothy snooded goat” could bear any load that they could place upon his back:


Nothing in memory had moved the people of Indianola to such frenzy. Out they came from every doorway, first with their kettles and pans; and then, as their kitchens emptied, with whiskey kegs and fire irons and gunnysacks of grain; their chamber pots and oil lamps and petticoats. Bales of hay based the load. Laundry cars were commandeered and bags of linen… In due course an ancient cannonball was brought up from the beach and dropped into one of the linen sacks that dangled from the hummock of Seid’s saddle, with a tiny child counterweighted on the opposite side… Then at last the storehouses and pantries of Indianola were empty, and he bade the camel stand.

This bizarre game of camel Jenga survives in the memory of a man called Lurie, one of the book’s two main characters. Lurie came to America as an immigrant. Homeless and orphaned, he took to grave-robbing and gang violence, and has long been on run from the sheriff, a bounty on his head.

Fascinated by the arriving camel train, he talked his way into the group, then, thanks to his humped steed, other jobs came his way. He’s shifted rail equipment and coal, carried “buffalo bones for the ciboleros” and “salt for the sellers of it”.

There have been, we learn, the odd comic moment (a fairground nativity scene where he got a bit-part as a foul-mouthed wise man). But now Lurie, always on the edge of things, is mysteriously alone in the desert, with only his camel and his thoughts for company.

While the threat of arrest creates a tension of sorts, his presence in novel is driven more by mood than plot. Harsh in tone, this is an unrelenting and flickering read, with the reality of Lurie’s circumstances emerging in Faulknerian fragments like a stereoscope.

The counterpoint narrative, also set in the early 1860s, is both more immediate and more sensational. Nora, a mother of three, is stuck on an isolated Arizona homestead. Her water supply has dried up and her husband has vanished from home – but practical matters of survival are compounded by things spectral. Her young son is convinced that the land is being haunted by a malevolent beast. A “ruffle-boned skeleton with great, folded wings on its back” has been spotted out near the barn.

Nora, for her part, spends her days in painful dialogue with the ghost of her long-dead daughter. Everywhere she looks, little Evelyn appears: “every beam, every mirror, every corner of the house breathed with the unmutable spirit”. Mother and disembodied daughter converse on a frequent basis, but ghostly Evelyn offers little advice about the whereabouts of Nora’s wayward husband, not does she suggest what to do about the “beast”.

Most pressingly, Evelyn has no suggestions about how to deal with the threat of dehydration. Nora stares at the “brackish tank, near empty now, and tenanted by a few stranded frogs”, and ekes out the supplies.

To reveal more would spoil the book’s stunning climax, in which Nora, Lurie, and their two plot lines collide in explosive fashion, but the journey to that point is a slow one. Oberht packs a great deal into this narrative and the result is difficult, knotty novel, that both needs – and rewards – persistence.

But while Inland may feel complex and overladen (we get everything here from 19th-century geology to accounts of the Southern free press), its ambition is part of the point. Despite the piled up details and the shuttling time frames the book, not unlike that camel on the Texas dockside, keeps moving forwards – freighted, intense, but “rolling steady, like a dream making itself up” as it goes.

Inland is published by W&N at £14.99 on August 13. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop