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On Belief and Téa Obreht's Inland

In the last moments of Téa Obreht's Inland, Nora opens a canteen that might have water in it, and we are told:

She had merely intended to satisfy her disbelief.

From her introduction in this novel, Nora (one of two main characters) operates in a state of disbelief. She does not believe her young son when he claims to see a beast. She does not believe Josie, the girl-cousin who lives with them, not ever: not when she's conducting a seance or claiming to encounter the dead at every turn or telling Nora how sorry she is that she left this or that undone. Nora does not believe that her husband is dead though he is already days late returning with the water, or that her friend isn't exactly who she claimed to be. She does not believe. But she'd sure like to satisfy her disbelief. In fact, her first words to Toby, running up to her claiming to have found the tracks of the beast, are, "All right. Show me."

But this book does not open with Nora. Instead, we are first taken a few years back, eased into this story of drought and survival, marriage and friendship, love and family and commitment. If ever there was a back way into a novel, Obreht has taken it. And like the early settlers in the heat and sun-bright of 1890s Arizona, there will be some who turn back. Some will get partway into this novel of two near-neighbor times and places and decide it is not worth it. I will admit I considered it. I am so glad I stayed.

The man you meet at the novel's opening will come to be known by several names. We walk in on him telling someone a story: there is an I (and that's our storyteller) and there is a you (and that's his audience), and that's about all we know for some time. Soon we learn that he is Lurie and that he has lived most his life surrounded by ghosts, dogged by their want and his own. Lurie doesn't stay in one place for long, losing friends who become family to the violence and depredation of the west. Early on, he takes up with a camel corps (this, a fascinating and little-known part of U.S. History), and from there his story takes shape.

For all the interest and intrigue Lurie's expeditions bring, this narrative is really driven by Nora: Nora and her husband Emmett making a life together the best they can; Nora and her boys, growing and challenging her in every direction; Nora and Evelyn, the daughter who died in infancy but who has stayed and grown up there with Nora, keeping ghostly company, sharing an invisible communion with her mother; Nora and her thirst; Nora and her anger; Nora and her fear; Nora and her disbelief.

The alternating narratives are a bit hard to track at times, in part because of the deep and immediate connection the reader makes to Nora. When you are in that part of the novel, it is everything; to be drawn out of it and back into Lurie's tale is a bit disorienting. But acclimated to the shifts, the reader who is willing to suspend her disbelief, the one who decides to stay the course and see where this story is going will be rewarded. The story itself is compelling and unfolds like an infinity cube, revealing unseen edges, full of wonder and truth. There are also glowing, heat-filled sentences around every corner, sentences that made me stop and take a stutter-breath at how fine they are. Here's Nora, at a moment of realization:

and here she was -- at the hearth of her rage. It was still here. She had grown up in it, let it contain her all her life, and she knew it, its margins and oddities. She was still herself, after all.

By novel's end, Nora and Lurie's stories overlap, as you suspected they would, as you knew they must. But how? That's the magic of this novel, and the final pages fairly sing as Nora is confronted by her disbelief. It shimmers out of every cut-glass facet of this narrative, and in the end, she is more than answer to it.


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