Ruchika Tomar’s Debut ‘A Prayer for Travelers’ is a Searing Look at Trauma, Grief, and Womanhood

Title: A Prayer for Travelers
Author: Ruchika Tomar
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Length: 351 p
Publishing Date: 9 July 2019

Let it be her inside. Not Penny and a half-naked stranger, or worse than the stranger. The sandman lurking in the hallway, primed for his revenge.

I’m diverging from my normal types of book reviews that are usually just a summary of plot and as vanilla of an opinion about the book as possible. The thing is, I haven’t read a book like this in a long time. A book that sucked me in from the very beginning, that wouldn’t let me go, that had me feeling so understood and so lost at the same time.

Unfolding in a splintered, non-linear timeline — the way traumatic memories are often stored — we sink into Cale’s memories as she (in the most broad description possible) tries to understand her role as a woman in a small western town. It’s one of those small towns that doesn’t let its people go easily; generations of families have gone to the same diner, the same schools, the same stores. But what happens when you want more? When you realize your potential, your destiny, lies beyond the city limits you’ve spent your whole life in?

Driven by grief after the death of her father, Cale becomes laser-focused on unraveling the mystery of what happened to Penny: a former classmate-turned-coworker who’d take Cale under her wing as they worked side by side at the town’s favorite diner. But the loss of her father isn’t the only thing Cale is grieving. She’s also lost pieces of herself in brutal ways that she’s aware of, but can’t really understand beyond the abstract.

Already I knew I would keep some part of that feeling forever; flinching at every creak in the floorboards.

It’s not just Cale’s story that pulled me into this book, but Tomar’s luscious prose, especially where setting is concerned. The deserts of Nevada and California fill every space between words, a subconscious reason for Cale (and the rest of the characters) to stay focused on survival even in the most unlikely conditions. The rain will come, the night will end, you’ll find water eventually.

What happens in this book is so layered on a psychological level that I’m still processing my feelings about what happened. True, the time span of the main events is short — but when does life ever space out traumatic, heartbreaking events in a way that makes things easy for us? And I found Cale’s reactions to everything that’s thrown at her to be so real and so relatable. She’s running, physically and mentally, away from her childhood, the shock of grief keeping her from understanding where she’s going and why. So caught up in trying to find the missing Penny, Cale doesn’t realize she’s lost herself, no longer tethered to a place by the man who raised her, by a job, by whatever understanding of family and roots she had grown up with.

If the desert was a mother, she was the type to eat her young. I didn’t want to be alone when darkness fell, and she let out her coyotes, her cats, her men.

We’re more than halfway through 2019, and I’m more than halfway through my reading challenge but A Prayer for Travelers has not only been the best book I’ve read all year, but the most important book as well. A gripping page-turner of a survival story, A Prayer for Travelers is this decade’s White Oleander.

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