In 1997, a young Indian author named Arundhati Roy published her debut novel, The God of Small Things. Fiercely political yet beautifully intimate, this lyrical masterpiece was awarded the Booker Prize and catapulted Roy to international fame.
Despite this initial flurry of success, it would be another 20 years before readers got their hands on Roy’s second novel. Some insisted The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was worth the wait (the Booker judges, for example, included it on their 2017 longlist); others expressed fierce disappointment. But it was hard to know whether such negativity was a true reflection of the work itself, or just proof that it is impossible for anything to live up to two decades of expectation (especially when its predecessor has come to be considered one of the most significant books of the last century).
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I say all of this, not by way of announcing the arrival of Roy’s third novel (if only!), but because the example immediately came to mind when I received a copy of Téa Obreht’s new book, Inland.
Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, was also a lyrical masterpiece that combined the familial and the political to astounding effect. Set in a fictionalised province of the Balkans, it won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, making Obreht its youngest ever winner.
But then, like Roy, Obreht waited a while (in this case, eight years as opposed to 20) before delivering a follow-up. As a result, industry chatter around Inland has been awash with phrases like ‘long-awaited’ and ‘most-anticipated’. Meanwhile, advance publicity has been eager to remind us of The Tiger’s Wife’s monumental success – the vast numbers of copies it sold; the wonderful, superlative things reviewers (deservedly) said about it.
Of course, this is an inevitable part of the marketing hype, but as with Roy, it risks creating a weight of expectation that can be as much a hindrance as a help. It also risks prohibiting readers from engaging with Inland as a work in its own right, rather than as something to be constantly compared and contrasted with its much-revered ancestor.
I was therefore both delighted and relieved to find myself thoroughly enjoying Inland. Instead of the Balkans, Obreht has turned her attention to the American West where, instead of a tiger, we meet a camel called Burke. Burke belongs to Lurie, a former outlaw who travels the country over a number of years fuelled by an insatiable spirit of (mis)adventure. Along the way, Lurie encounters a colourful cast of prospectors, sheriffs and Native American tribes, each one vividly unique yet uniformly baffled by this stranger and his furry friend.
The novel’s other protagonist, Nora, only travels as far as her village and back again, but over the course of a single, sweltering day she also enjoys her fair share of colourful encounters. She chats with her youngest son Toby, who claims to have seen a strange ‘beast’ lurking on their land; she chastises her maid Josie, who claims to be able to communicate with the dead; she challenges her friend Harlan, who claims he might have some new information regarding the recent disappearance of Nora’s husband and older sons.
Though Lurie and Nora’s paths never quite cross, both their stories are characterised by similar questions of restlessness and home; of what it means to choose one place, one life, over another. Meanwhile, both are plagued by people from the life after this – where Lurie sees occasional ghosts, Nora spends her time hearing one ghost in particular – that of her late daughter, Evelyn.
Both characters are also deeply connected to the surrounding landscape of the American West, which is depicted in Obreht’s trademark gorgeous prose. An autumnal valley makes “a brilliant spectacle of its own death”; a night-time stroll features “the ragged lip of the mesa, above which the stars sat in their whorled millions”.
To conjure such historical and geographical richness, Obreht has described her extensive research process. Chunks of this can sometimes slow things down – indeed, it is into the second half of the novel that Obreht really finds her flow. By this stage, Nora’s point of view has largely taken over, as newly-revealed backstories and hidden clues start to lead us towards a staggering climax.
I have no doubt that, for better or for worse, comparisons between this novel and The Tiger’s Wife will abound. However, as a work in its own right, Inland is very fine. I hope Obreht takes as long as she needs to turn her hand to number three; in the meantime, the rest of us can wait patiently (and try to guess what exotic animal might take her fancy next).
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