A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar
Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Genres: Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction, Literary
Cale doesn’t have a lot of people in her life. In fact, there’s only one since her mother left her in a hospital room when she was an infant. Her grandfather, a quiet old man who has no experience with children, who takes her to casinos while he gambles, but whose face, voice, and familiar smells are all she knows of love. It’s a small life in nowheresville Nevada until she meets Penny. Penny, the prettiest girl in her gang, a group of girls who pay no attention to Cale. It’s only when she starts working at the local diner with Penny that an entirely new world opens up to her. A world of friendship and camaraderie. One that shatters when Penny goes missing. A Prayer for Travelers begins with this mystery and ends with even more questions.
As Cale combs through Penny’s life, trying to find where she might have gone and why, we learn that her life is a tangled one. As complicated as Cale’s is not. She waitresses, lives alone in a trailer, has a little sister, deals drugs and sleeps with men when she needs cash. And yet, with all these connections, no one has any idea what might have happened to her. Just as startling is that none of them seem to care. Cale is Penny’s opposite—quiet, with no friends but her dog, with an inner life and love of books. This mismatched friendship reminded me a bit of Mesha Maron’s Sugar Run, another novel of friendship, repercussions, and coming-of-age.
There’s an aimless quality to A Prayer for Travelers, thanks to Tomar’s desert dry, baked heat writing. Cale wanders through her young life as does Penny, but both are seeking something else, something more. What this might be is not clear, except that for Cale it’s something like college, while for Penny it’s something darker.
It was something else powering her through those moments, some incubating fury she had never shown.
There are events and upheaval in the novel, some of the kind that changes lives, but Tomar maintains a pervasive sense of detachment throughout. In the wrong hands this could push a reader away, but instead, it’s almost magnetic. It’s the characters and the smallness, as well as the enervating Southwestern environment, that lures. A Prayer for Travelers is a novel of journey, not destination. By its end, certain facts are clear, but others are lost to sight like the road in a dust storm.
I wasn’t afraid of any monster, or myself. It was sorrow cracking me open, a fissure I couldn’t explain, a yearning for something or someone I didn’t know.