When my brain starts to make connections between stories, it usually stays with in one medium. For example, I tend to compare books to books, movies to movies, songs to songs, etc. But every now and then, I’ll run across a story that jumps across media. That’s exactly what happened when I read Ruchika Tomar’s hypnotic novel, A Prayer for Travelers. This mystery, set in the north Nevada desert, reminded me strongly of Memento, The Long Goodbye, and, weirdly, The Big Lebowski (but only the mystery part of that movie, not the bowling stuff). The story of Cale seeking her friend Penny is told out of order so that we’re piecing things together as much as Cale was when she lived it. It’s also packed with twists that make our protagonist—and us—wonder who we can trust and who the real villain is.
Cale is a loner. For most of her life, she has her taciturn grandfather (who raised her after Cale’s mother abandoned her) and their dogs for companionship. In high school, that changes when she meets Penny. Their friendship really starts to blossom when Cale gets a job waitressing alongside Penny in the sole diner in (fictional) Pomoc, Nevada. Penny draws Cale out of her shell; Cale looks to Penny to learn how “normal” people interact with each other. When Penny goes missing one day and no one seems particularly interested in looking for her, Cale goes looking for her friend, criss-crossing desolate roads through the Great Basin Desert and encountering all sorts of strange desert people who really want to be left alone.
Because the story is told out of order, it takes some time to finally learn not just what happened to Penny, but also how Cale’s face was injured, how the two women became friends, what happened to Cale’s grandfather—as well as witness a whole bunch of bad decisions. The more I read this book, I more hooked I was. Of course the mystery grabbed me, but what really captured my attention was the fact that Cale is a fantastic narrator. Her sharp observations and ability to turn a phrase make not just the characters come to life, but also the setting around them. There were moments in A Prayer for Traveler’s when I could smell the juniper and feel the dust on my skin as Cale talked about her home. I love it when narrators can do that.
I don’t want to say too much about what happens in this book other than what I’ve already said, because I don’t want to give any thing away. The only hint I’ll give is that readers who have a hard time with nonlinear narratives can use the out-of-order chapter numbers to ground themselves in the book’s chronology. Readers who enjoy mysteries where nothing can be trusted, who like a challenge, and/or love narrators who can really bring the settings to life will enjoy this gritty, intensely human novel of a woman trying to find a friend in a lonely place.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.