This follow-up to the award-winning The Tigers Wife is an otherworldly vision of 19th-century Arizona
There are wounds of time and there are wounds of person, cautions a camel driver in the extraordinary second novel by Ta Obreht. Sometimes people come through their wounds, but time does not. Sometimes its the other way around. Sometimes the wounds are so grievous, theres no coming through them at all. Obreht is superb at tracing such inescapable wounds, both personal and national. Her 2011 Orange prize-winning debut, The Tigers Wife, mapped the aftermath of civil conflict in an unnamed Balkan country still scarred by war, which was based on her native Serbia (born in Belgrade in 1985, Obreht moved to the US at the age of 12). The fictional territory of Inland is as vivid and as violent: Arizona in the second half of the 19th century, populated by cowpokes and prospectors, gunslingers and cattle kings and, yes, cameleers.
Magic realism served Obreht well in her fable about Yugoslavias baroque divisions, and its no less effective in shaping this alternative foundation myth about the American west. On the face of it the book begins conventionally enough, with the story of an outlaw, Lurie, who is on the run. The twist lies in Obrehts affinity for unusual transformations. Like her, Lurie comes to America from the Balkans, as an immigrant child called Djuri. His surname is swiftly anglicised and he has a brief career as a gang member before falling in with the US Camel Corps on its way from Texas to California. Here truth proves stranger than fiction. The Camel Corps was a short-lived experiment introducing the animals into the US army as beasts of burden, manned by drivers from the Ottoman empire. Billed by wanted posters as a hirsute Levantine, Lurie finds that his ambiguous ethnicity provides the perfect cover for a new life as an ersatz camel-riding Turk.
Lurie is just one of many wounded trying to remake themselves in a terrain whose emptiness serves as a clean slate for fantasies of conquest and escape. A shapeshifter, he is permeable to the histories of others, living and dead. Like The Tigers Wife, this book is peopled by the casualties of empire: vanished children, displaced women and ghostly armies of the men who stood up for the right to call the territory their own:
The doomed French rode up from the desert with their brilliant pennants flying. Small cavalries of dead Indians roamed the old battletrails. Their arrowheads still lay thick on the ground in the groves where theyd fought and died and won and lost. Every now and again some dead rider would pass us, hurrying home to be reborn.
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