This novel is set in the 1890s in the Arizona Territory, portrayed here as a harsh and violent place in which the primary law is one of survival. The imperatives of subsistence dominate the lives of the characters, who struggle for livelihoods, love, and perhaps most of all, water. But the dead are also featured in this book; they continue to haunt the spaces where they died, and make demands on the living. They all came to the West to chase dreams or escape failures, and settlers who died earlier haunt those who came after them.
The story slowly weaves together two plot strands told by quite different narrators. Lurie is an immigrant from the Balkans, variously identified as a Turk or a Levantine, or “a weird little monkey. ” He claims that choices he makes in his life are dictated not by his own will, but by the dead who surround him, and who find him a particularly receptive vessel for their wants and needs. Lurie was briefly a criminal (stealing in response to imperatives from a dead friend) until he joined up with the U.S. Camel Corps. [This was an actual experiment by the U.S. Army in using camels as pack animals in the arid and inhospitable Southwestern United States. You can read more about it on this website.]
The camel Lurie adopted, Burke, is also a character in the book. The camels impress everyone who encounters them: “Their eyelids are thatched with the loveliest lashes God ever loomed. . . . And their great height lays all the horizon to view.”
Hadji Ali (known as “Hi Jolly”), who was first a victim of Lurie’s penchant for stealing and then befriended him, brought Lurie into the Camel Corps. Jolly called Lurie “Misafir,” claiming to all who wanted to know (and lawmen persistently did want to know) that this was Lurie’s true identity rather than that of the wanted man on so many posters. (The character of Hi Jolly was based on an authentic member of the Camel Corps, as was the character “Greek George.” The denouement of the book also came from an historical account; if you don’t mind a huge spoiler, or you wait until finishing the book, you can read about it here.)
While the experiences Lurie recounts take place over a long period of time, in alternate chapters we follow only a single day in the life of Nora Lark. Nora, a 37-year-old frontier wife, is struggling with the drought; the death of her daughter Evelyn when only five months old; her very wayward son Toby; and her deceitful ward Josie – “born to chicanery” – whose interference in Nora’s life would try the most stalwart person. Less immediately perhaps, Nora is trying to reconcile herself to the failed dreams of her life with her husband of twenty years, who is now missing along their two eldest sons. But it is Nora’s thirst, both physical and psychological, that drowns out every other aspect of her life.
Both Nora and Lurie reflect upon all they have learned from their improbable survival in the face of continuous obstacles. And much of what they credit for that survival is the important role of deception. They deceive others, but no less importantly, they lie to themselves.
Nora thinks that “the older she grew the more she came to recognize falsehood as the preservative that allowed the world to maintain its shape. . . . Her own knack for deceit surprised her. Lying was as easy as saying nothing. It struck her at some point that all life must necessarily feed on willful delusion.”
Lurie has similar observations about the value of delusion over a realistic assessment of worries.
Indeed, one can view the magical realism of the book as a part of that reliance on deception by the characters. Are there really ghosts all around advising and imploring the living, or is that just the excuse they use to justify their passions and needs? Nora herself isn’t sure:
“Might the dead truly inhabit the world alongside the living: laughing, thriving, growing, and occupying themselves with the myriad mundanities of afterlife, invisible merely because the mechanism of seeing them had yet to be invented?”
The illusions of the dead may alternatively be a result of the hallucinatory effects of severe thirst, as when desert travelers become convinced they are approaching an oasis.
It isn’t even easy to discern which characters are actually alive, or dead but interacting with the living. Fallacies and fantasies overlay the story like the unending cloudless skies that leave those in this unforgiving landscape fatigued, undernourished, thirsty and given to desperate acts. And yet the instinct for survival ultimately wins out – for most – over despair.
Evaluation: I’m not sure I liked the story much – it was dark, and a little too “out there” – perhaps surreal would be a better word – for my taste. But the writing by this author, who was a National Book Award finalist for her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was impressive enough that I stuck with the book, and I was glad I did. It’s not a story one easily forgets.
Obreht’s poetic descriptions of the severe environment create stunning contrasts, perhaps suggesting by this technique that even the bleakest landscape can be beautiful, depending on one’s perspective. When one character looks out with fear into the forbidding night, she still can appreciate the view: “On the far shore she could see familiar forms, the ragged lip of the mesa, above which the stars sat in their whorled millions.”
I especially love Homeric epithets, which Obreht favors and which enhances her writing. Her characters are “wave-rocked,” “sea-tossed,” with “sunflecked shoulders” and one of the most effectively pithy: “winter-stranded at a depot.”
This story is startling in many ways, and might appeal to fans of Cormac McCarthy more than it did to me. This is not to say I didn’t recognize its literary merit, and would not hesitate to recommend it.
Published by Penguin Random House, 2019