There’s a distinguished lineage of novelists who have wanted the American West to mean something. The trouble is that it means so much: writers set up their encampments in that vast, parched, sunstroke landscape, only to fall victim, like the frontiersmen they portray, to their attempts to tame it. What does the West mean? It means hope, violence, and gold, it means loneliness, it means struggle, it means escape and yearning, it means nature. It means death. It’s irreducible.
This is the challenge Téa Obreht faces in her muddled, poorly paced, yet intermittently sublime new novel, Inland. Set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, it’s largely the tale of Nora, a mother of three—or four, or five, depending how you tally parenthood—whose husband, a newspaperman, has been absent from home an uncomfortably long while. More immediately, she has two problems on her hands: a lack of water, and a “beast” that her youngest son, Toby, is unshakably convinced lurks nearby.