The author’s previous novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was an exhausting view of life in the Balkans, with fairy tales from the Ottoman days and references to the 1990s war in the region to the uneasy postwar years when it was published in 2011. The backdrop for this one is the West; one tale begins in the 1850s, the other in the 1890s and the two collide at the end.
The story featuring Nora in the 1890s during a drought in the Arizona Territory has elements of “The Western;” settlers frightened of the Native Americans they displaced, a sheriff who experienced the law on both sides of the badge, issues of fences, and one person in town running a newspaper. Times are always hard in the West, but the lack of winter snowfall in the mountains had failed to bring the needed water.
The voice of Nora’s daughter who died as an infant came to her over the years, reflecting the child, then the teenager she would have been. She “derided Nora’s baking, offered a counterpoint to ranching problems, held political opinions that sometimes ran contrary to Nora’s own. All angles of a problem were evident to her, making her counsel indispensable to goings on, large and small, all improvements on the house, all livestock decisions, all instructions to hired hands.” It was this voice that made Nora more than the hard, relentless woman she had become.
The other story is told in the second person point of view by a man named Lurie talking to Burke, his camel. Along with some elements of the old West, it involves an interesting oddity of history. The US Army hired men to introduce the use of camels to carry cargo in the desert southwest beginning in 1856. One of those men was called Hi Jolly, born in Syria, who had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, earning himself the name Hadji Ali. This historical figure is buried in Quartzite, AZ, 128 miles west of Phoenix.
When the camel brigade gig ended, Lurie and Burke have adventures over the years. Lurie sees, but eludes the lawman who has been looking for him for years for having murdered someone. The line between the living and the dead is smudged again as it is with Nora’s daughter. Lurie speaks of the “want” of the dead, the differences between the wants of two of his companions of the past, “This lead me to wonder after want itself. Was I permitted any of my own? Must I now forever fill up with the wants of any dead who touched me, all who come before me?” Lurie continues his lament after he himself dies, physically attached to Burke for years, worrying about Burke’s demise.
Nora has been dismissing the sightings by unreliable witnesses within her household of a beast; the vindication of the witnesses comes at a cost. Yes, it’s a thirsty Burke with Lurie on his back who turns up at the household looking for water just as everything else is going wrong for Nora.
I hardly know what to think about this book. The two readers were both exceptional with this material, especially Anna Chlumsky, an actress who made Nora real for me. The voices kept me intrigued but now that I reflect, I find elements that were irresistible but the whole feels elusive.
Téa Obreht, Inland, Random House, 2019, 372 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.